Disruptive innovations

Wednesday / Mar 22 2017

Newspaper : The News

Neuroscientists at the Wisconsin-based Wicab Inc have developed a device called ‘BrainPort’ that helps blind people see with their tongues. According to the late co-founder of the company, neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, we see with our brains and not with our eyes, so it should be possible to develop devices that allow the blind to see.

‘BrainPort’ involves collecting visual data using a small digital camera that the blind person wears on a pair of sunglasses. The digital optical signals are then converted by a central processing unit (CPU) – about the size of a cell phone that the blind person carries in his/her pocket – into electrical signals, simulating and replacing the function of the retina. The CPU then sends the signals to sensors on the surface of a lollipop-like device that the blind person carries in the mouth. The nerves on the tongue receive these signals and transmit them to the brain, thereby creating the images of the object being viewed. With a little learning, the user can distinguish between a knife and a fork on the dining table and read letters and numbers and decipher them on the buttons in an elevator.

The device originally announced in 2009 has been tested extensively at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre’s UPMC Eye Centre and is now commercially available. In a subsequent development, the images can be transferred to the brain by an arm band through the nervous system in the arms. This avoids the use of lollipop devices.

Another way to restore vision for the blind has been developed by Prof. Michael Beauchamp at the University of Texas. He is exploring the possibility of electrically stimulating the visual cortex of the brain by means of electrical implants. He also believes that we see not with our eyes but with our brains and if electrical images generated from the visual objects can be transferred to the correct region of the brain, vision can be restored. About 10 percent of the blind people experience vivid hallucinations. This is attributed to the hyperactivity of the visual cortex of the brain and the images produced can be seen in exquisite detail. It is envisaged that a webcam fitted on the glasses of the blind person could be connected to an implant in the brain to restore vision.

The ability to record brain activity while seeing an image, and then play it back to reconstruct that image has been a matter of pure science fiction – until now. Scientists working at the University of California, Berkeley, have succeeded in reconstructing visual images after recording the brain activity of people watching movie trailers. The scientists were able to see what peoples’ brains were seeing. They used a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner to record the flow of blood in certain parts of the brain. Using powerful computing techniques, it was possible to correlate the visual images with corresponding brain activities. This allowed the images to be reconstructed. The researchers hope to eventually “read the thoughts” of patients in a coma or those suffering from a paralysis after a stroke. They can even apply these techniques on spies who are trying to hide information. Researchers have now also succeeded in reconstructing words by detecting peoples’ corresponding brain activity.

Another area of intense research activity is that of regenerative medicine that involves the growth of human cells and tissues. Indeed stem cell therapy is heralding the advent of a revolution in medicine to repair damaged kidney and heart cells and to treat diabetes and other diseases. Stem cells can be differentiated into different types of specialised cells (heart, kidney, pancreas etc). Adult stem cell therapies have been used for a long time to treat leukaemia and other cancers by bone marrow transplants.

Now a special bandage, seeded with stem cells, has been developed by scientists at the Bristol University in the UK to repair cartilage tears that are otherwise difficult to heal. The bone marrow is extracted from the hip of the patient with a needle. Stem cells are obtained from it and multiplied separately before being embedded into a special membrane/bandage which is inserted into the torn cartilage. The stem cells present on the membrane are expected to help the healing process. The procedure can help repair meniscus tears that are particularly common in athletes.

Ink jet printers are commonly used for printing documents. An astounding breakthrough has been made by doctors at the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine in the US where a device that resembles an ink jet printer can be used to spray new skin cells on to burn wounds. This method results in rapid healing and can eventually replace the need for having skin grafts. The device resembles a colour ink jet printer and comprises a tank that contains skin cells, stem cells and nutrients. These are sprayed by a computer controlled nozzle directly on to the burnt area. In animal experiments, the wounds in mice were fully healed within two weeks using this technique compared to the five-week period that skin graft procedures took. The ink jet printer method also showed less scarring and better hair regeneration. The technology is being employed by the US army to ‘print-shut’ bullet wounds and blast damage.

Magicians have been practising the art of making objects disappear for centuries. Now, science can take on that role. In 2006, Prof. John Pendry and his colleagues proposed the design of a cloak that could steer light around an object, making it invisible. Soon thereafter Dr David Smith at Duke University made a cloaking device that used certain ‘metamaterials’ that had unusual electromagnetic properties. The invisible threads of these metamaterials are made of components smaller than the wavelength of light. This allows them to bend light waves and impart optical properties that are not present in normal substances. Computer models indicate that such threads should not be thicker than a micrometre. When these ‘carpet cloaks’ are placed over an object, the object becomes invisible.

The technology has applications in defence: it may allow soldiers, weapons, warships and planes to appear invisible. Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility is fast becoming a reality. Invisible armies, ships, planes and submarines cloaked by metamaterials seem like a possibility in the near future.

Countries investing in these cutting edge researches are making billions of dollars through such entrepreneurial ventures. If Pakistan is to prosper, we must give the highest national priority to education, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. This requires a visionary government that understands the critical role of a knowledge-based economy in the rapidly changing world of today.


The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).