Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher John L. Wyatt normally designs electronic eyes for robots. But several years ago, he wondered if a "vision" chip that detects and processes light could help correct blindness caused by the degeneration of the rod and cone cells in the eye. They receive light and chemically stimulate nerve cells that transmit images to the brain.
After five years of trying, Wyatt developed a chip small enough to sit against the retina, the light-sensitive membrane at the back of the eye. The chip grabs light and, via electrodes on its surface, sends out electrical impulses that replace the chemical messages of the rod and cone cells. The impulses get stronger or weaker as the light does. Working with researchers at the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary, Wyatt hopes to test the chip in rabbits this spring. If the light-sensitive chip is implanted against the retina, theoretically it would allow the brain to perceive light and darkness. It could be years before the idea could be applied to people. For starters, no one knows whether the chip could work for long periods in the eye.