What is sensory substitution? How will it help those who are blind?
As human beings, our five senses deliver information about the world to our brains for processing and interpretation. When one (or more) of these senses is disrupted by trauma or disease, the afferent data transfer ceases, but the brain can continue to function normally.
Loss of sight leading to blindness represents just such a scenario. The visual cortex, robbed of its input stream, can continue to interpret sensory information from a different source. This concept of using an alternative end-organ to convey information to the central nervous system is known as sensory substitution, and is one of many strategies being pursued by our team (and others) to restore a sense of vision to the blind.
Our current research interests aim to uncover what types of information can be relayed to the visual cortex by alternate sensory channels, determining the underlying neural substrates responsible for conveying such information using functional neuroimaging, and the extent to which neuroplasticity remains into adulthood.
We are exploring which psychophysical metrics can be used as outcome measures for sensory substitution devices, and exploring rehabilitation protocols (including telerehabilitation) needed to train the blind to use sensory substitution devices once they become available.
Without the parallel development of a solid clinical infrastructure to support their use, it is likely that any type of artificial vision device will be rejected by the users.
We are actively collaborating with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University to determine which machine vision platforms may be appropriate for transfer to artificial vision devices.
"About 12 years ago, I lost my eyesight following the second surgery to remove a pituitary adenoma at the base of my brain. That really turned by world upside down....."
Mark Pappas tested the BrainPort™ as part of a study at the University of Pittsburgh. We invite you to read more about Mark and his own BrainPort experience here.
Department of Ophthalmology
University of Pittsburgh