Progress towards Bionic Vision: Ancient Roots - New Hope?

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Progress towards Bionic Vision: Ancient Roots - New Hope

A Brief Personal Look at the Connection between Perception, Sight and Vision

Being or going blind in our highly mobile and outward directed world presents challenges not to be underestimated. Many conditions are involved, some directly eye related, some brain and neuro function dependent. We frequently assume that only the late 20th century has made the connection between vision and brain function.

The 1990s were termed the "Decade of the Brain" when medical research started to identify specific brain regions and functions—supposedly for "the first time in history." But, was it the first time? It appears that vision and the brain and its functions have fascinated humans and driven mankind’s quest for knowledge for some time…

Initially, my interest in this field fell more into the category of insight and perception. It started two decades earlier, during the 1970s, when I began to teach particular body control techniques to my advanced equestrian students. Visualization techniques had become a popular tool for elite athletes. Instead of looking with their actual eyes, I suggested that the riders should imagine "seeing" by means of two particular areas at the back of their head just above the rim of their hunt cap.

It always became apparent when they succeeded in making that switch from looking through their eyes versus perceiving via their occipital area. The results were stunning: communication with their mount improved immediately. The horses freed up their movement, and the reflex coordination of these riders became fine-tuned and near invisible to the onlooker. Today, a 2011 Oxford, U.K. paper in a similar manner relates visual imagery to the cortical area of the brain.[i]

Many years later, as part of my studies in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), I learned that already for thousands of years the ancient Chinese had placed their "vision lines" in precisely that same location in their scalp-acupuncture technique:

On the occipital protuberance: two vertical lines, about 1" long, running vertically a couple finger-breadth either side of the midline of the back of the head.

Today's western anatomy describes this area of the brain the occipital lobe responsible for the perception of vision.

Different from regular head acupuncture that places short needles vertically or at slight transverse angles in specific points of the head, in true scalp acupuncture long needles are threaded between scalp and skull along specific lines. The "vision lines" are said to improve sight challenges. It was when  I experienced those scalp acupuncture needles firsthand that I recalled exactly the same feeling I used to teach in those earlier horseback riding lessons.

Most recently, I became aware again of the link between eye sight and the function of the occipital lobe through ongoing work done by Monash University, Australia. By developing bionic glasses, a group of researchers is working on a project designed to restore vision for certain conditions of loss of sight.

Their Project Overview on the Monash University website[ii] states:

Monash Vision Group (MVG) is a collaboration between Monash University, Alfred Health, MiniFAB and Grey Innovation. MVG has two key goals; to develop research capabilities in medical bionics for vision restoration and to produce a cortical prosthetic prototype device that will be demonstrated in at least one recipient by 2014. Many people who are blind or vision impaired have damaged optical nerves, which prevent signals reaching the brain. MVG aims to restore a sense of sight by transmitting wireless signals directly to an implant in the brain. The project is funded through the ARC Research in Bionic Vision Science and Technology Initiative, with funding from 2010-2014.[iii]

It appears that their chip implant once again targets a similar region at the back of the brain that Traditional Chinese Medicine uses. There, the chip will directly stimulate the visual cortex of the brain where in acupuncture we thread needles between scalp and skull in order to stimulate and improve vision. An ancient technique in a 21st century technical cloak!

This field of research into the eye-brain interaction is raising exciting possibilities for the very near future. Research into the link between vision and the brain clearly is not restricted to the 1990s. Worldwide, research is ongoing. An interesting Oxford, U.K. research paper[iv] was just published that looks at the link between language processing, sensory, and cognitive tasks that evoke activity in the occipital cortex in the blind. A paper from McGill University, Canada is pointing to the cortical thickness in the blind as a measure of increased perception and directly related to adaptive compensatory plasticity.[v] The list goes on.[vi]

Stay tuned for major developments that promise to allow individuals with vision challenges to become increasingly independent!

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