Philip R. Troyk, principal investigator for the Intracortical Visual Prosthesis project, explains how it works.

Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology are launching clinical trials of an artificial vision system that has the potential to restore partial vision to people who have lost their sight. The first-of-its-kind system, known as the Intracortical Visual Prosthesis (ICVP), is an implant that connects directly to the brain’s visual cortex, bypassing the retina and optic nerves. The National Institutes of Health has awarded Illinois Tech researchers $2.5 million for the first year of a three-year project that includes implanting their new type of wireless visual prosthesis system in volunteers.

Funding will be provided as part of the NIH’s The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

The implant system was developed by a multi-institutional team led by Philip R. Troyk, executive director of the Pritzker Institute of Biomedical Science and Engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology, professor of biomedical engineering, according to a statement from Illinois Tech. It represents the culmination of nearly three decades of Illinois Tech research dedicated to ultimately providing artificial sight to those with blindness due to eye disease or trauma.

An overview of the ICVP device in action.
“This is an incredibly exciting moment, not just for the field of biomedical science, but more importantly for people with blindness and their loved ones around the world,” Troyk said in the statement.

Since many individuals affected by total blindness do not have intact retinas or optic nerves but retain the visual cortex—the area of the brain that allows people to see—an intracortical visual prosthesis may be the only possible advanced visual sensory aid from which they can benefit.

While the brain works as a powerful processing system and receives millions of nerve signals from the eyes, if the eyes are no longer able to communicate with the brain, Troyk said that researchers can “intervene by bypassing the eye and optic nerve and going directly to the area of the brain called the visual cortex.”

The ICVP chip easily fits inside a penny.
The Intracortical Visual Prosthesis System is the first intracortical visual implant to use a group of fully implanted miniaturized wireless stimulators to help explore whether individuals with no sight can visualize rendered images in real-time through visual perception. The visual prosthesis system allows devices to be implanted for an extended period of time, which is a unique advantage that provides researchers ample time to explore how the device can work effectively, and for the recipient to learn how the device can be useful.

In the past two years during the preclinical phase, the Illinois Tech team has worked with surgeons to develop and refine surgical procedures, and now are prepared to surgically implant the devices. During the clinical phase, the idea is to be able to test whether this device will provide study participants with an improved ability to navigate and perform basic orientation tasks.

The ICVP chip is similar to a cell phone network.
Illinois Tech is partnering with Rush University Medical Center, The Chicago Lighthouse, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Texas at Dallas, Microprobes for Life Science, Sigenics, Inc. and The University of Chicago with Troyk serving as the principal investigator.