British researchers have developed a device that trains the brain to turn sounds into images — a new technique that could provide an alternative to invasive treatment for blind and partially-sighted people to regain their vision.
Scientists from the University of Bath called the so-called "vOICe sensory substitution device" a revolutionary tool that helps blind people to use sounds to build an image in their minds of the things around them.
A research team, led by Michael Proulx, M.D., tested the device by monitoring how blindfolded sighted participants responded to a standard eye test using the device. The results indicated the device allowed the participants to score well on the test — the equivalent of 20/400 vision — even though they could not technically see the letters on the test with their eyes.
"This level of visual performance exceeds that of the current invasive techniques for vision restoration," said Dr. Proulx, citing such approaches as stem cell implants and retinal prostheses.
"A recent study found successful vision at a level of 20/800 after the use of stem cells. Although this might improve with time and provide the literal sensation of sight, the affordable and non-invasive nature of the vOICe provides another option."
He added that the vOICE device might be used on its own, or in combination with other vision-restoration approaches, to help the blind see.
"Sensory substitution devices are not only an alternative, but might also be best employed in combination with such invasive techniques to train the brain to see again or for the first time," he said.
The research study — entitled "How well do you see what you hear? The acuity of visual-to-auditory sensory substitution" — was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
The research team included the inventor of the vOICe sensory substitution device — Peter Meijer, M.D., of The Netherlands — and Alastair Haigh and Dave Brown of Queen Mary University of London.
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