Damaged retinas may have a better chance at sight with a new light-sensitive plastic being developed by nanotech scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology in Milan.

Nanotech has a massive impact on improving the lives of disabled people due to the ability to integrate artificial functional materials with live neural tissues. But previous attempts at devising retinal prosthetic devices, a notoriously delicate and challenging area of research, have been met with resistance by the human body, since implanting devices into the eye can corrode and damage nerve cells, experts say.

A paper published on January 25 in the journal Nature Communications describes a new type of flexible, organic semiconductor material that doesn't adversely affect the health and function of nerve cells yet can stimulate the neural activity within the eye to produce something akin to human sight. More work needs to be done before the scientists expect to release the product, but they also report that it holds promise not only as a retinal prosthetic but in creating artificial color vision for the blind.

Further along in the process is the first commercial retinal implant, which is awaiting clinical approval. Devised by US-based Second Sight, the retinal prosthesis consists of a tiny camera and transmitter mounted in eyeglasses. Users pack along a wireless microprocessor and battery pack to power the device. The camera on the glasses captures an image, then sends it to the transmitter, which signals through a cable to an electrode array, firing off electrical pulses. The tiny implant in the eye responds to the pulses by signaling the brain, which then perceives patterns of light and dark spots, or visual patterns that the user can interpret.

Access the journal article here: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v2/n1/full/ncomms1164.html

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Watch a video on the artifical retina: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaYrgmr09Ho