Returning sight to those for whom it’s slipped away has been a goal of scientists for decades. But repairing or replacing the delicate internal machinery of the human eye has proven difficult so far. A few experimental devices have managed to grant low-resolution sight to the blind, but most require the use of bulky electronics and external power sources.
But researchers from Fudan University and the University of Science and Technology of China say that they’ve come up with a more elegant solution to curing some forms of blindness. They simply swapped out dead photoreceptors in the eyes of blind mice — the rods and cones that produce electrical signals when hit by photons — with artificial versions made of gold and titanium oxide.
The human-designed photoreceptors take the form of nanowires studded with tiny gold flakes, which help tune the array to respond to light in the visible range. The wires are surgically implanted in the same space that the photoreceptors once occupied, and they remain in physical contact with retinal cells to pass along electrical impulses to the visual cortex.
The mice in the experiment had been genetically engineered to experience a progressive degradation of their photoreceptors, similar to what happens in people with retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration. Both diseases disrupt the eye’s ability to pass sensory information on to the brain, and can lead to permanent vision impairment if not treated. Crucially, however, the rest of the eye and the brain’s visual processing system remain intact, meaning that visual signals can still be processed if they reach the brain.
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