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'Blind' cells see the light; maybe someday humans will, too

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The idea of genetically engineering surviving retinal cells to be sensitive to light has various advantages over the most common approach to creating a bionic eye -- inserting electrodes into the optic nerve to simulate the cell firings a visual scene normally would excite. Though this technique works fairly well in the ear -- witness the success of cochlear implants -- the eye is a much more complicated place, Kramer said.

"This is a more organic, less invasive approach than electrodes," Kramer said, noting that insertion of electrodes can cause problems with biocompatibility. Electrodes also are large and tend to stimulate an entire bank of cells at once, which would limit the resolution.

"How well electrodes would work depends on the density of the electrode array and how well you can marry the electrodes with the neural elements underneath," he said. "Our approach is not a mere chip on the retina it may allow us to cover the entire retina with light sensitive cells. If each nerve responds individually, you could do a very fine scan of the retinal field and create much, much better spatial resolution."

Current, admittedly early attempts at restoring sight with electrodes in the retinal ganglion cells, whose axons bundle together to form the optic nerve entering the brain, allow the patient to see little more than patches of light and dark, Kramer noted.

Kramer, a researcher with UC Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Research Institute and a member of the campus's Health Sciences Initiative, studies ion channels -- protein valves that regulate the flow of charged atoms in and out of cells. Spanning the membranes of nerve cells, sodium and potassium channels, in particular, facilitate the transmission of electrical signals along the length of the cell.

Trauner, on the other hand, specializes in synthesizing large, complex molecules. Together, the two scientists conceived the idea of modifying an ion channel t
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Contact: Robert Sanders
rsanders@berkeley.edu
510-643-6998
University of California - Berkeley
21-Nov-2004


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