- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Seeing with the tongue? Yes, it’s possible. A recently developed device helps blind people read books and street signs as well as play sports and games by stimulating nerves on the tongue.

“I played tick-tack-toe with my daughter,” says Erik Weihenmayer, who lost his vision at age 13 because of a congenital eye disease. “And I caught her cheating,” adds the 40-year-old mountain-climber, author and inspirational speaker with a chuckle.

He’s doing this by using a product called BrainPort. Essentially, a camera mounted on the blind person’s head sends visual information via wires to a processor. The processor translates that information into gentle electrical stimulation patterns through a flat device that’s worn on the tongue.

“People describe it as a picture being drawn with bubbles,” says Robert Beckman, chief executive officer of Wicab Inc., the company that makes BrainPort. It has not yet been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration.

Those bubbles provide signals that are sent to the brain’s visual cortex for interpretation. The idea of letting one of our senses make up for the deficiency of another is called “sensory substitution,” says Mr. Beckman, who is testifying before Congress today about a different version of BrainPort that aims to help people with balance deficiencies caused by conditions such as stroke.

In other words, if the eyes don’t function well, let different nerves - in this case, those of the tongue - do the work by sending enough information for the brain to make an informed interpretation.

“It works because you don’t actually see with your eyes. You see with your brain,” Mr. Weihenmayer says.

Adds Mike Oberdorfer, a program director at the National Eye Institute, a branch of the National Institutes of Health: “It’s the plasticity of the brain that makes it possible. … In this case, it’s inputting a perception, except the perception is not a visual; it’s based on touch. But in the end, it creates the same perception [in the brain].”

In the case of BrainPort, a blind person can see size, shape, location and motion of objects in black and white. Anything with a sharp contrast - black letters on a white background - is easier to see, Mr. Weihenmayer says, than images of low contrast - say, people dressed in pastels set against foliage in a park.

However, the picture - even in a high-contrast context - is much cruder than that of a sighted person’s perfect vision.

“It has to do with the limitations of the hardware,” Mr. Beckman says.

The main limitation is the tongue device. It features 400 tactors - electrode points - which can be compared to pixels. The more tactors the tongue device has, the clearer the picture.

“We’re still in the early stages of this technology,” Mr. Beckman says, adding that he hopes to add tactors - maybe up to 20,000 - to future devices to gain additional clarity.

Another challenge to using the device is that it requires training: You have to learn the settings of the apparatus (like any manual camera, it has to be adjusted for distance and aperture) and you have to train the brain to make the correct interpretations and connections. It’s like learning a new language.

“Think about how long it takes a child to learn how to read,” says Mr. Weihenmayer, who has used the device for about 20 hours.

Speaking of children, Mr. Weihenmayer says if the device lands in the hands of blind children - which it hasn’t yet - there is no telling what the potential can be because of the superplastic nature of young brains.

For adults, however, Mr. Beckman predicts that the BrainPort will be added to other tools already in a blind person’s toolbox, including a cane or a guide dog.

Mr. Weihenmayer agrees: “I don’t see it as the end-all device. But it will be another tool to integrate [blind people] into the world.”

Social isolation is a common condition for blind people.

“This device helps make you feel safer and more confident,” he says.

The cost - when it becomes available on the market - is estimated to be about $10,000; by comparison, seeing guide dogs cost up to $17,000 to train but usually are offered to blind people free of cost.

Mr. Weihenmayer’s hope is that FDA approval will happen quickly and the product will become mainstream for blind people nationwide so they can experience the wonder and usefulness of the device.

“Reading was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced,” says Mr. Weihenmayer, who also has used the device to rock climb, which he normally does without any type of visual aid. “And the leaping flame of a candle. It’s amazing.”

He should know about cool and amazing experiences. Mr. Weihenmayer was the first blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

www.touchthetop.com (Erik Weihenmayer)

www.nei.nih.gov (National Eye Institute)

www.wicab.com (BrainPort)

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