ARC grant helps biomedical engineers develop algorithms to restore sight

By Prue Gildea

Photo of eye with futuristic overlay

A Biomedical Engineering research group was recently awarded a linkage grant from the Australian Research Council. The two-year funding will focus on developing algorithms for electrical stimulation of neurons using arrays of electrodes.  These algorithms could be used to help restore sight for a bionic eye user.

The University of Melbourne led research will be carried out in partnership with commercial entity, Bionic Vision Technologies (BVT). Professors Anthony Burkitt and David Grayden (University of Melbourne), Dr Hamish Meffin (University of Melbourne and National Vision Research Institute) together with Dr Tatiana Kameneva (Swinburne University) are the chief investigators. They are joined by Dr Martin Spencer, postdoctoral researcher from the University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

The team will use electrode stimulators to generate activity in the brain. In existing stimulators, the number of useful electrodes is limited due to an undesirable effect: the influence of each electrode spreads and overlaps, influencing the activity of its neighbours. This leads to blurring of the intended stimulation pattern. This can compromise vision outcomes for users of the bionic eye.

Our project will develop optimal methods that can actually take advantage of overlapping areas to ‘shape’ the pattern of activity in the neurons… This results in a clearer image for the vision impaired person with a bionic eye

Talking about how the funding will assist their work, Dr Spencer said, “Our project will develop optimal methods that can actually take advantage of these overlapping areas to ‘shape’ the pattern of activity in the neurons. In a bionic eye, for example, the electrical stimulation will evoke activity of the nerves in the retina which is like that evoked by light in normal sight. This results in a clearer image for the vision impaired person with a bionic eye.”

There is a general need for highly accurate targeted electrical stimulation of neurons. The project may lead to improved understanding of brain function and, in medical devices, improve the restoration of function for users.

The project arose from of an existing relationship between BVT and the University of Melbourne. The technology will help restore vision for people with inherited retinal degenerative conditions. In the future it is anticipated that the research and technology could be applied for use by patients with age-related macular degeneration.

To find out more about biomedical research at the University of Melbourne, visit biomedical.eng.unimelb.edu.au/