It might sound like science fiction, but it’s real – an innovative new pair of glasses is making it possible for the blind to “see” with their tongues.
How? We see with our mind, not with our eyes. The retina, the part of the eye that collects light information and translates it into nerve impulses, doesn’t actually interpret those impulses. It sends them to the visual cortex via two million or so optic nerves, where that information is decoded, allowing us to experience vision. If one can find another way of collecting and decoding that light information, then transmitting it to the brain, one can bypass the eye all together. Or at least that’s the theory that, BrainPort, the new device being developed by neuroscientists in Wisconsin, works on.
The BrainPort device collects visual data through a tiny digital camera in the center of a pair of sunglasses and transmitted to a handheld unit the size of a cell phone. This unit allows the wearer to control zoom, light setting and shock intensity levels and houses a central processing unit (CPU) that converts the digital signal from the camera into electrical pulses. Those electrical pulses are transmitted back to the brain through the tongue. A “lollipop,” an electrode array that sits directly on the tongue, transmits these pulses through a series of tiny electrical bursts that feel like Pop Rocks or champagne bubbles to the user.
After about fifteen minutes, blind users begin to interpret spacial information via the BrainPort. ”It becomes a task of learning, no different than learning to ride a bike,” neuroscientist Aimee Arnoldussen says. The “process is similar to how a baby learns to see. Things may be strange at first, but over time they become familiar.” Patients testing the device are quickly learning to do things like find doorways and elevator buttons, read letters and numbers and pick up utensils without fumbling. Arnoldussen and her colleagues are still not sure whether or not the BrainPort is actually managing to transmit information to the brain’s visual cortex or whether or not it’s being interpreted through the somatosensory cortex, where data from the tongue is usually processed. But for the people the BrainPort promises to help, that hardly matters.