Optogenetics update: A tiny implantable the size of two stacked coins could restore sight or provide a heads-up display for Terminator-style vision
For those who were born without sight, or who may have lost their vision through disease or injury, news that US military researchers are working on an implantable “cortical modem” must surely be exciting.
DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, announced at a recent Silicon Valley think tank that the implantable device could plug into your DNA to restore vision loss and show a heads-up display right before your eyes.
The military has been particularly interested in such implantable devices because they would allow members on covert operations to scan crowds, identify faces, measure biometrics, and take and transmit imagery without any signs of outward gadgetry or wearables.
The cortical modem concept was delivered by DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, its sort of “blue sky’s the limit” brainstorming arm.
According to a story on CNET, “the short-term plan is for a tiny device about the size of two coins that would give you a heads-up display somewhere around the level of an LED alarm clock. It could cost just $10.”
The story goes on to say that the idea of a cortical modem stems from the field of optogenetics, which involves “studying and even controlling specified cells within living tissue by shining light on them.”
Light-responsive proteins can be added to the brains of living beings, allowing scientists to turn neurons on or off with never-before-seen precision. They can then study neurological activity—at the same event presenting real-time visual maps of mouse thoughts—and potentially even control that activity, perhaps one day correcting neurological disorders – Rich Trenholm, CNET
Optogenetics, the science of controlling the brain through light, holds tremendous promise but it has not yet been tested on humans. According to Trenholm:
It would require fiddling around with the DNA in a subject's neurons, which, let's face it, isn't the sort of project you dive into on a Friday afternoon.
Photo: Philippe Put
This development takes conversations about Google Glass and Terminator Vision to a new level. If scientists are able to manipulate our DNA to the extent where sight can be restored or augmented, the potential is enormous.
Whether or not the cortical modem becomes reality is another story altogether. For now, the excitement is in watching and waiting.
Top photo: Zach Dischner
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