In a project under Horizon 2020, researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN) and the Radboud University, together with five other European organizations, aim to restore vision in blind people using electrical stimulation of the brain. The project is being coordinated by the University of Zurich and supported by the European Union with funding of 4 million euros.
Working in interdisciplinary teams from seven European universities and institutions with complementary expertise in computational, systems, and clinical neuroscience, materials engineering, microsystems design and deep learning, the project will develop technology to restore vision in blind people through electrical stimulation of the visual cortex.
Close interdisciplinary cooperation
The aim of the project is to develop a prosthesis with thousands of electrodes driven by adaptive machine learning algorithms for a new brain-computer interfacing technology. “We aim to make an interface with the cortex with more than 1,000 electrodes that will keep working for many years, even decades”, explains Pieter Roelfsema, project leader and director of the NIN. Current systems only stimulate a small set of neurons in the brain, and interfaces have a longevity of only a few months to a year.
Roelfsema is convinced that the project will succeed in its goals: “We established a strong team with partners that cover the relevant expertise. I have high expectations of this team, which is likely to create new breakthroughs in technology to alleviate some of the consequences of blindness”. The challenge will be coordinating the expected breakthroughs across multiple disciplines.
These breakthroughs include innovative approaches for stimulation with high-electrode-count interfacing with the visual cortex. For this, thin flexible probes that minimize tissue damage are needed, as well as new electrode coatings and novel microchip design and fabrication methods. The researchers will also channel the stimulation currents to many thousands of electrodes and monitor neuronal activity in higher cortical areas.
Breakthroughs are also expected when it comes to artificial neural networks trained by deep learning, which will extract only the most relevant visual information from a camera input to enable blind individuals to recognize objects and facial expressions and navigate through unfamiliar environments. These networks will transform the camera footage into stimulation patterns that drive the neurons in a way that the blind person can interpret. At the same time, eye tracking will be used to improve perception in a closed-loop approach.
Creating biocompatible, durable probes for the clinic
The goal of the work carried out at the NIN is to develop and test a new generation of flexible interfaces that will allow future blind users to benefit from the technology for years to decades. The neuroscience team of scientists Pieter Roelfsema and Xing Chen will be working with consortium partners to rigorously test the novel stimulation electrodes in animals, hence bridging the realms of the laboratory and clinic.
“Our results will not only be applicable to visual neuroprostheses, but will have the potential to radically transform and enhance the field of brain-machine interfaces, by enabling safe, long-term human use,” says Chen. The involved researchers believe that the project will catapult Europe’s profile in this area to the next level.
If a project receives funding from the European Union, it must involve excellent science in innovative and promising interdisciplinary research fields that provide new and relevant ideas for industry and society. The international Neural Active Visual Prosthetics for Restoring Function (NeuroViPeR) project meets all these criteria and has been awarded an EU research grant totaling 4 million euros over four years. The project will kick off on 1 September 2020.
The project’s seven partners
The international Neural Active Visual Prosthetics for Restoring Function (NeuraViPeR) project brings together scientists from the University of Zurich, the University of Freiburg (Germany), the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience – KNAW, Stichting Katholieke Universiteit (Netherlands) and the Miguel Hernández University of Elche (Spain). The Flemish research institute IMEC/IMINDS and the Dutch business Phosphoenix are also involved in the project, which has an overall budget of 3,999,681 euros.