US and Korean researchers have created an artificial retina that provides an effective alternative to silicon visual implants. Ultrathin, flexible and made of 2D materials, the implant could also be used to monitor activity in the brain and heart.
Presented at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), a prototype artificial retina is giving hope to the millions of people with retinal disease that they may one day be able to regain their sight, as reported by News Medical. A demonstration of the device, which can also potentially be used to monitor brain and heart activity, showed the usefulness of 2D materials such as graphene and molybdenum disulphide in its creation. “Although this research is still in its infancy, it is a very exciting starting point for the use of these materials to restore vision,” said the project’s head researcher Nanshu Lu.
Innovative and more adaptable materials
The retina contains photoreceptors called rods and cones that convert light into nerve impulses that reach the brain via the optic nerve and are translated into visual images. Diseases such as macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa can damage this retinal tissue, which can lead to partial or total vision loss.
Many of these retinal diseases cannot be cured. In response, researchers have come up with silicon-based implants that have allowed some patients to regain their vision in part. These devices are rigid and fragile, however, and are unable to properly mimic the retina’s natural curvature, resulting in blurred and distorted images. They can also strain and damage eye tissue. In addressing these problems, Lu and her team used graphene, molybdenum disulphide and thin layers of different metals to produce a thinner and more flexible implant that adapts better to the size of the retina.
Heart and brain activity monitored
The device has been tested on animals in laboratory conditions. Its photoreceptors were found to absorb light and pass it through an external circuit board that digitally processed the light, stimulated the retina and obtained impulses from the visual cortex. In short, the artificial retina successfully replicated the features of the human eye.
Lu and her team are now studying the possibility of integrating the technology into electronic tattoos on the surface of the skin so that health data can be collected in real time. These devices have the potential to amplify signals from the brain or heart and make them easier to monitor. They could also be placed on the heart surface to aid the detection of arrhythmias and be programmed to generate electrical impulses to correct them.
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