Visual impairments have caused severe limitations to the quality of life for billions of people around the world, but advances in technology and medicine have paved the way for renewed optimism that different levels of blindness can one day be effectively treated through medical innovations.
According to the World Health Organization, at least 2.2 billion people around the world suffer from some form of visual impairment which can range from mild levels to total blindness in impact.
While this can be debilitating for sufferers, the overall financial impact of these impairments can cost over $25 billion in lost productivity for the global economy. This impact, put in business terms, means that solutions through technology can not only transform billions of lives on a human scale, but also be a profitable solution on an economic one.
Advances in artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and machine learning have all helped to accelerate the array of treatments available to those suffering from different levels of blindness, and with this in mind, let’s take a deeper look into four of the most significant recent medical innovations that can help to treat visual impairments:
One of the most significant developments of recent years has been in the field of assistive eyewear. One example of this technology in action can be found in the OrCam MyEye Pro, which is a cutting-edge technology that’s designed to help completely blind wearers by actively analyzing and describing the world around them.
With the help of a small wireless smart camera around the size of an index finger and a magnetic connection to the arm of just about any glasses, wearers can simply point their finger or touch the bar for the camera to capture an image of the environment in their line-of-view.
Once the image has been assessed, the hardwear will audibly describe the environment via a small speaker positioned above the ear.
The device can help to make shopping more straightforward and the reading of bills when out and about.
It’s even possible for the OrCam to memorize and identify hundreds of objects like logos on buildings and other recurring items that you can come into contact with every day. Along with scanning your environment, it’s even possible for the camera to use facial recognition to identify friends and family.
Possessing some similar technological advancements to that of the OrCam, engineers at CU Boulder have managed to utilize artificial intelligence to create a ‘smart’ walking stick to assist visually impaired users.
Designed to replace the traditional walking stick, researchers claim that the smart walking stick could ultimately help blind people to confidently navigate the world around them by assisting them in countless everyday tasks.
“I really enjoy grocery shopping and spend a significant amount of time in the store,” noted Shivendra Agrawal, a doctoral student in the Department of Computer Science. “A lot of people can’t do that, however, and it can be really restrictive. We think this is a solvable problem.”
Carrying a resemblance to the white and red walking sticks available at Walmart, the smart walking stick utilizes a built-in camera and computer vision technology to identify products. It also maps and catalogs the world around it, and can physically guide users through the use of vibrations in the handle. If, say, a user wanted to buy a tin of soup at the supermarket, the stick would issue verbal directions like ‘reach a little bit to your right’.
This technology can be of particular use to older users who have become accustomed to using walking sticks, and those who may be living with cataracts where if we read more the negative impacts can cause blurred vision that can be assisted with gentle prompts.
While the medtech industry has a habit of overpromising when it comes to developments, the development of a visual prosthesis for blind patients could pave the way for a significant breakthrough in curing vision loss.
Dubbed the ‘Science Eye’, the implant intends to target two forms of serious blindness that have no cure. The technology will evolve to serve as a brain-computer interface (BCI) by transmitting information through the optic nerves of a wearer.
This means that although they wouldn’t be using their eyes to see, the implant could accurately replace their blindness with computer vision.
Powered by the BCI startup, led by former Neuralink president Max Hodak, the endeavor has already raised $160 million in order to commercialize the technology.
In a collaboration between the University of California, Irvine School of Biological Sciences and the School of Medicine, researchers have found that it could be possible to partially restore the vision of those suffering from inherited blindness.
Specifically, the team was examining treatment for Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), which is a term that refers to a group of inherited retinal diseases that form severe visual impairment at birth.
Through administering chemical compounds that target the retina, researchers found that it may be possible to restore a notable amount of vision in children with LCA, having initially found encouraging results in mouse models of inherited blindness.
“Frankly, we were blown away by how much the treatment rescued brain circuits involved in vision,” said Sunil Gandhi, professor of neurobiology and behavior and the corresponding author.
“Seeing involves more than intact and functioning retinae. It starts in the eye, which sends signals throughout the brain. It’s in the central circuits of the brain where visual perception actually arises.”
Although there’s likely to be a long way to go until implants or chemical treatments can help to restore full blindness, it’s clear that technology is evolving in a positive way to improve the lives of the visually impaired. With 2.2 billion people around the world set to reap the benefits of these developments, further breakthroughs will be a major leap for humanity.