Saturday, June 20, 2009

Development of BrainPort may help restore vision

From the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh. Cpl. Mike Jernigan, a retired U.S. Marine who lost both of his eyes after being wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004, demonstrates the BrainPort, a "vision through the tongue" device, at a news conference for the Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration of UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh. Cpl. Jernigan is wearing glasses with a small camera at the bridge, which is part of the BrainPort.

"Mike, what do you see?" retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock asked retired Marine Corps Cpl. Mike Jernigan yesterday morning.

It was an odd question, for Cpl. Jernigan has no eyes. He lost them both while suffering other severe injuries in a roadside bomb blast during a tour of duty in Iraq in 2004.

Nevertheless, the scarred, but otherwise strapping young man in dress blues sat ramrod straight and stared at a strip of white felt that Maj. Gen. Pollock had hung horizontally on a black, felt-covered board.

"It feels like a horizontal line," Cpl. Jernigan responded.

An audience comprising media members, officials of various University of Pittsburgh and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center programs, and donors or potential donors applauded the corporal's demonstration with a device called BrainPort.

It continued to do so as Cpl. Jernigan correctly identified a strip of white mounted diagonally, an arrow pointing straight up, an arrow pointing diagonally downward and a circle. Only the circle took an extended period of thought for him to identify.

"This is a first generation device in research protocol. You can't run out and buy it," said Maj. Gen. Pollock, executive director of UPMC's Center for Vision Restoration.

"This is a step along the continuum that we'll need to do."

The center was formally renamed the Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration of UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh during yesterday's gathering at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, when it was announced that Mr. Fox made a $3 million donation to the center, and UPMC matched the grant. The Fox Center is a joint program of the UPMC Eye Center and the McGowan Institute, in the Pittsburgh Technology Center off Second Avenue in Hazelwood.

A Pennsylvania native, Pitt alumnus and a retired commodity merchant banker and trader, Mr. Fox got involved with the Fox Center after seeing a program about its work shortly after its opening last September. Its main focus is discovery and development of new cures for blindness and visual impairment, especially those of the retina, optic nerve, cornea and lens.

Mr. Fox got interested in vision restoration when he was diagnosed 10 years ago with central retinal vein occlusion, an incurable condition caused by blood vessel obstruction that rapidly left him with life-altering vision loss in his right eye. Three years later he got it in his left. An active man, he had to give up driving and piloting his plane, among other activities.

"I said we've got to get involved with this, to get help not only for me ... but also for others who suffer from [blindness and vision problems]," said Mr. Fox, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Taconic, Conn.

"I've heard that the [medical condition] people fear next worse after death is loss of vision."

Leslie Jernigan, the corporal's bride of a few months, said her husband told her that when he lost his vision, "I thought I could just die. What was the purpose?"

In addition to acquiring a wife and a stepson, Caleb, 13, Cpl. Jernigan, of Colonial Heights, Va., has enrolled in Georgetown University, where he is maintaining a 3.2 grade point average, and does the work with the BrainPort for the Center for Vision Restoration.

He is the first person to be allowed to take the device manufactured by Wicab Technologies of Wisconsin home to try for an extended period, according to Dr. Amy Nau, director of optometry and low vision services at the Eye Center of UPMC.

Dr. Nau currently is enrolling patients in two studies of the BrainPort. One will define the criteria necessary to be chosen to get the device and the other to try to determine whether and how much it does help the blind.

Cpl. Jernigan, who praised the Fox Center for "thinking outside of the box, not of dogs or canes," said he has found BrainPort useful.

"With this device, I can accomplish stationary tasks while I'm sitting down," he said. "I can keep track of things. It helps me not spill my drinks. ...

"[The next generation] is going to help me walk down the sidewalk without walking into [something]."

The workings of the BrainPort system are complex. Its parts include a tiny camera, a handheld control system about the size of a BlackBerry used for zoom and contrast inversion, a base unit and an electrode array, which is placed on the tongue to send signals to the brain.

"Visual information is collected from the user-adjustable head-mounted camera and sent to the BrainPort base unit," Wicab says on its Web site. "The base unit translates the visual information into an electrical pattern that is displayed on the tongue. ... Users often report the sensation as pictures that are painted on the tongue with champagne bubbles." Hence, Cpl. Jernigan's statement that the first image felt like a horizontal line.

"I don't see like you see," he said. "[I get] electrical images I can use with my tongue to figure out what they are."