Technology May Give Blind A Touch Of Sight

At first glance, Roger Behm looks like an independent guy who sees the world with a rather sharp sense of humor. But he's actually seen nothing since he was a young man, CBS News technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg reports.

However, part of his world is coming back into focus, through experimental technology called BrainPort.

One day it could actually help blind people see, in a sense, by using their tongues. BrainPort swaps tiny cameras for eyes and transforms the images into electrical impulses that are felt on the tongue.

"It is as if it's drawing on the tongue. So if you capture the image fast enough ... it is like a video display. Instead of being on a screen, now it is on your tongue," says Rich Hogle of BrainPort.

In normal vision, the eyes send signals to the middle of the brain. From there, the signals are sent directly to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. That's not so for the blind, however.

BrainPort retrains the way the brain processes information by first stimulating the tongue with an array of tiny electrodes. The nerves in the tongue send signals through a different pathway to the brain stem and the area that deals with to touch. Eventually the blind person learns to interpret touch as sight.

Roger Behm uses the Brainport, then gives a chair caning demonstration in his workshop.
TIME: The Flavor Of Memories
TIME: How The Brain Rewires Itself
"you know when you're a kid and — I don't know if you did it or not — but one kid would draw on your back and you'd try to guess what it is? That's what it's like," Behm explains.

Sound impossible? Behm is able to walk through the BrainPort office without any guidance. He can navigate an obstacle course and pick out specific shapes. Behm can even spot the logo on a football jersey.

"It's like learning a language. At first you might need to take a long time thinking about what the translation is. I might feel stimulation in the right front part of my tongue, (but) what does that mean?," says Aimee Arnoldussen, a BrainPort researcher. "But very rapidly, like learning a language, you might learn a few quick vocabulary (words), and eventually you become so fluent that you don't need to think about it anymore."

Sieberg put on a blindfold and tried out BrainPort. After a humbling first attempt, he managed to understand some of the BrainPort language.

For the blind, it's a glimpse at more freedom.

Behm says he hopes "this develops to the point where the next generation can get benefit from it, even if I don't get the greatest out of it. I still am determined that if I can see their eyes and maybe I can see a smile or a grin — that'd be cool."

For the rest of us, it's a miraculous look at how our brains can be trained to rewire themselves.

  • Melissa McNamara

Comments