Yael Haenin wants every human being to experience healthy, happy and independent aging. This goal is the very end slide of her Solve for X talk, Artificial Solar Retina, but the concept is present throughout the entire talk as she outlines her work in the field of artificial vision.
Haenin describes our visual system as the capacity of the brain to reach out and look at the environment. Humans have a strong need for visual contact with the world, and eighty percent of what we perceive, comprehend and remember concerns visual information. Yael's work with artificial vision is inspired by the need to fight Age-Related Macular Degeneration.
By 2050 it is estimated that over five million Americans will be affected with AMD, and not be totally blind but have enough sight loss that diminished quality of life exists. The ability to read, write or recognize faces is severely damaged and patients often need help from healthcare or family to make up for the loss of sight.
Artificial retinas already exist using microfabrication technology allowing for enhanced vision. Patients have the sensation of visual information sent through electrical signals that stimulate the brain and create images. This technology is inspired by cochlear implants and due to the brain's plasticity acceptance and processing of these electrical signals improves and adapts.
The drawback to these systems is that wires are needed to power the devices and take in information. The benefit of enhanced vision can often be lessened by a need for wires to be sticking out of a patient's eye.
Haenin's moonshot idea is the option to use new materials that did not exist when the first artificial retina was developed. Her research focuses on the basic requirements of the natural vision system and replacing those with manmade devices.
The research focuses on using carbon nanotubes to create a scaffold structure in the retina that will transmit signals back and forth from the eye to the brain and allow for the flow of energy. Carbon nanotubes can act as a natural velcro to bind themselves to the biological system. Strategically manufacturing the nanotubes into different configurations allows Yael's team to differentiate between the bio components and the energy transfer components of the retina.
The carbon nanotube vision project has been the focus of Hanein's work for more than a decade, and it's incredible to see the work that her team has been doing and the breakthroughs that have been made.