Why machine vision chips are not a good treatment

What is a machine vision chip?

Machine vision chips are devices created to stimulate the retina electrically. Their system consists of a camera integrated in a pair of glasses worn by the patient, which transmits the information to a chip implanted in the retina with a surgical operation. This chip transmits the information to the optic nerve and the brain.
These devices are not a novelty, since they are systems that began to be developed more than 25 years ago. However, the results during this time have not been good, as they have not proven to be a good alternative because the image quality they offer does not have a real impact on the patient’s quality of life.

Chips for retinal diseases

The system is based on direct stimulation of the retina, so it will be prescribed to patients with retinal problems, but whose optic nerve is functioning properly, since the optic nerve is necessary to transmit information from the retina to the brain. For that reason, machine vision chips are not useful in people with optic nerve diseases, such as patients with end-stage glaucoma, who have an atrophied optic nerve.
The main retinal diseases that may benefit from these chips would be those affecting the outer layers, especially the photoreceptor layer, such as retinitis pigmentosa.

Model of an eye with implanted machine vision chip

Improvements in the machine vision chip patient

When the retina is electrically stimulated, the patient will perceive light sparks or flashes emitted by the device’s electrodes. The latest generation systems with, for example, 150 electrodes cause the patient to see these sparks distributed in his field of vision, as if they were 150 pixels of a black and white photograph. The resulting image is very simple.

Implanted retinal chip

Disadvantages of retinal chip implantation

These devices are implanted in a surgical procedure that presents many risks both during the operation itself and in the postoperative period.
It is difficult to integrate an inorganic element into living tissues, and it is possible that the chip, when it comes into contact with the retinal surface, may generate scars in the tissues that considerably reduce the transmission of the nerve stimulus. In addition, electrical discharges to stimulate the retina may damage these tissues, even causing the device to fail, since the patient would no longer perceive the flashes of light.
The functional result of this treatment is practically null, so it is not worth taking the risks compared to the benefits that can be obtained.

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Alternative solutions for retinal problems

Blindness is caused by a malfunction of the ocular tissues, which are living tissues formed by cells. Therefore, a problem or cell death in the retina causes vision loss. To restore a patient’s vision, the future lies in trying to recover the function of those cells that are not working properly, or to replace the dead cells with new ones.
The treatment to recover cell function is gene therapy, which consists of modifying the genes so that the cell recovers and works properly. If the cell is dead and we seek to replace it, new cells must be transplanted to replace the function of the dead cells, known as cell therapy.
One of the cell therapies is therapy with stem cells, which are found in the body and can differentiate into different cell types. These cells can be used to modulate the growth of these cells and convert them into retinal cells to replace dead retinal cells.

Stem cell imaging

Advances in retinal treatment

Gene therapy and cell therapy are two lines of research that have made great strides in ophthalmology and other specialties. In the near future we may see advances that will provide an answer to retinal diseases that are difficult to treat, such as Leber’s congenital amaurosis, a retinal disease suffered by children. Some results have already been achieved in patients who have managed to recover some of their vision. The great challenge now is to ensure that this benefit for the patient is maintained over time.