Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Professor shares milestones in development of bionic eye

Dr Nigel Lovell giving his presentation after formal dinner

When Professor Nigel Lovell spoke at Warrane on Wednesday 26 September 2012, he shared some of the milestones in the huge multidisciplinary effort that is going into creating a bionic eye.

Nigel Lovell is a Scientia Professor at the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering at UNSW and Program Leader of the Electrical Stimulation Strategy for Bionic Vision Australia, which leads the world in the quest for a bionic eye.

He said that a bionic eye was made necessary by certain diseases that affect the eye’s ability to convert light into electrical symbols that can be interpreted by the brain.

“They’re terrible diseases for the people who are afflicted by them – you probably don’t realise how important the sense of vision is,” he said, directing his listeners attention to photos from around the world which showed special pathways meant to help visually impaired people navigate, but which all ended at dangerous obstructions, like poles and even buildings.

Looking at changes in the human brain that followed the onset of blindness, Professor Lovell pointed out that brains are actually able to rewire themselves in order to adapt to the change. “This is the big hope for anyone working in the area of sensory loss – that the brain can rewire,” he said. “It can become plastic in order to process new signals. That is the good news. What we need to do is to supply consistent and hopefully reproducible signals to the brain so that it can rewire itself and learn to interpret the signals.”

Professor Lovell explained that early pioneering work in the 1960s had revealed that an area of the brain known as the “visual cortex” received and interpreted electrical symbols from the eye.

“It showed that we could electrically stimulate parts of the brain and have it respond in ways that we would we hope to represent vision in a very, very crude form,” he said.

The quest for the bionic eye was initiated at UNSW in 1997 when Gregg Suaning embarked on a PhD with Nigel. Early work involved the development of a device which it was hoped could be implanted in humans by the year 2000. In reality, researchers only got as far as implanting the device in the eye of a sheep, enabling recording of electrical signals to the brain and the responses of the brain to stimulation of the retina.

“We knew that if we were able to stimulate certain parts of the retina, the brain would respond. That was a good first step… The problem was that we were technologists and not so aware of the biology. We ignored aspects of the surgical approach, the electrode tissue interface, how the body reacts to these foreign substances. We had a rather naive view of it, so we actually had to go back and redesign everything. That was quite a sobering moment for us, but we did it.”

Along the way, the Australian Government had held the 2020 Summit to “help shape a long-term strategy for the nation’s future” which helped the team to focus on the year 2020 as a target date for a functioning bionic eye. The consortium that was set up with government funding was based at the University of Melbourne, but it relied on the technology developed at UNSW. The new project led to placing most of the electronics for a bionic eye behind the ear, like a Cochlear device, which is then connected to a much smaller electrode array that fits inside the eye. But part of the challenge still involved coming up with materials to which the body would not react in an adverse way.

“It’s a huge and complex task to build (the electronics capsule that feeds into the retina),” he said. “We use a whole lot of lasers to build it. It has 98 wires that feed through four layers of ceramic, which is one of the most difficult features of the device. The Cochlear bionic ear device only has 22 wires.

“We use a whole lot of origami to make it. It’s sort of folded up this way and that way and then turned over. We use lasers to open metal contacts in silicone rubber.”

Professor Lovell said the design of the device was based on the hexagonal shape of the eye of a fly – a design which allows many electrodes to be stimulated at once, making it possible to paint an image on the retina in a very efficient way. This hexagonal design functions better than other designs developed overseas.

“The actual chip that has been created is only four millimetres by four millimetres, but it has 30,000 transistors and is probably the most sophisticated piece of electronics that has ever been placed inside the body,” he said. “Besides the electronics we do what we call cell jabbing, which means that we take retinas and place very fine micro electrodes in the cells to understand how they react when you shine light on them and when you stimulate them.”

Professor Lovell said his unit now had lasers that allowed them to stain cells with special dyes to see how the cells react when they are stimulated. He emphasised that when you build a bionic eye you don’t just build the technology or the electronics, but you need to use mechanical, material, electrical and computer science, as well as neuroscience and surgical expertise.

While only 10 years ago the bionic eye was definitely in the science fiction realm, now the science fiction of the past was becoming the “science fact of the future”.

“We believe that within the next few years we will have a bionic eye implanted in humans…”

Professor Lovell concluded by encouraging students to try to aim high in their professional careers, but to always strive for balance in their lives between their work and their personal and family lives.

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]