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Scientist developing solar panel implants to restore lost function in human eyes

Engineers at UNSW are investigating the potential of integrating solar panels into the human retina as a means to restore vision. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)


Engineers at UNSW are investigating the potential of integrating solar panels into the human retina as a means to restore vision. This endeavor falls within the realm of neuroprosthetics, which aims to use devices to interact with the nervous system and restore lost functionalities.


Such advancements hold promise for enhancing quality of life, akin to well-known examples like cochlear implants, which help those with severe hearing loss by converting sound into electrical signals that directly stimulate the auditory nerve.


 
 

Could similar technology be harnessed to restore vision for individuals with damaged photoreceptors, the cells responsible for detecting light and color? A diverse group of researchers spanning engineering, neuroscience, clinical practice, and biotechnology believe it's a possibility, though current progress remains at an early stage.


Dr. Udo Roemer. (CREDIT: Robert Largent)


Dr. Udo Roemer, a researcher at UNSW specializing in photovoltaics (solar panel technology), is at the forefront of this exploration. He envisions a system wherein light entering the eye is converted into electricity by solar technology, bypassing damaged photoreceptors to transmit visual information to the brain.


 
 

"People with conditions like retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration gradually lose eyesight as photoreceptors degenerate," explains Dr. Roemer. "Biomedical implants in the retina have long been considered as a potential solution.


One approach involves using electrodes to create voltage pulses, allowing individuals to perceive small spots. However, current methods entail the complexity of wiring into the eye."


 

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Dr. Roemer proposes an alternative: integrating tiny solar panels onto the eyeball, converting light into electric impulses directly interpretable by the brain. This wireless solution eliminates the need for intrusive wiring, offering a self-powered and portable alternative.


While not the first to explore solar cells for vision restoration, Dr. Roemer's focus on semiconductor materials like gallium arsenide and gallium indium phosphide presents a novel approach.


 
 

These materials offer tunable properties and are utilized in the broader solar industry for more efficient panels, albeit at a higher cost than silicon.


Dr. Roemer proposes an alternative: integrating tiny solar panels onto the eyeball, converting light into electric impulses directly interpretable by the brain. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)


"To stimulate neurons effectively, higher voltages are required than what a single solar cell can provide," notes Dr. Roemer. "By stacking multiple solar cells, we aim to achieve the necessary voltage. Gallium arsenide facilitates this stacking process compared to silicon, making it a favorable choice."


 
 

The research, currently in the proof-of-concept phase, has seen success in stacking two solar cells on a 1cm2 area in the laboratory. The next steps involve scaling down these cells into tiny pixels and refining the stacking process to include three cells.


Dr. Roemer envisions that, following extensive lab testing and validation in animal models, the technology could advance to human trials. The resulting device is projected to be approximately 2mm2 in size, with pixels measuring about 50 micrometers, though implementation in patients with degenerative eye diseases remains a distant prospect.


It's worth noting that even with stacked solar cells' efficiencies, direct sunlight may not provide adequate stimulation for implanted devices. Dr. Roemer suggests potential solutions such as specialized goggles or smart glasses to amplify sunlight into the necessary intensity for reliable neural stimulation.


 
 

While the journey towards solar-powered retinal implants is ongoing, the interdisciplinary efforts of researchers like Dr. Roemer offer hope for a future where vision restoration becomes a reality for those with degenerative eye conditions.





For more science news stories check out our New Innovations section at The Brighter Side of News.


 

Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


 
 

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