[Nfbmo] seeing with your tongue.

Fred goodfolks at charter.net
Tue May 19 16:42:11 UTC 2009

Seeing with your tongue.
>> By RON SEELY, 608-252-6131,
rseely at madison.com
>> Roger Behm lost his sight at 16, the victim of an inherited disease that
>> destroyed his retinas. Both of his eyes were surgically removed.
>> Now 55, Behm has made himself at home in a sightless world. He started
>> his own
>> business in Janesville selling devices that help the blind cope with
>> day-to-day tasks. He and his wife have raised five children and just
>> adopted another child from China who is also blind. He fishes, canoes,
>> camps and scuba dives.
>> But Behm can remember seeing. Which is why he couldn't believe it when,
>> three
>> years ago, he slipped a device over his head, turned it on, and was once
>> again
>> able to discern light and dark, shapes and shadows, letters and numbers,
>> and even a rolling golf ball.
>> "I could look down and and see the ball, white on black, and I could see
>> myself
>> swinging my putter," Behm said. "And, of course, I missed. But I could
>> reach
>> down and pick up my ball, like any other sighted person."
>> The device is called BrainPort and, though it seems like a gadget from
>> Star Trek, it may be available commercially by the end of the year.
>> It works by converting images from a video camera to electrical impulses
>> that are transmitted via the tongue to the brain of the blind person and
>> turned again
>> into black-and-white images that the user sees.
>> It takes advantage of groundbreaking work by a UW-Madison scientist that
>> showed
>> the brain will reprogram itself to accept and use different sensory
>> signals - in
>> this case touch instead of sight - to replace signals that can no longer
>> be received due to injury or disease.
>> The device, which consists of a miniature camera mounted on a pair of
>> sunglasses, a tongue sensor and a small control unit, was developed by
>> Wicab of Middleton. It builds on another of the company's devices that
>> uses the same underlying ideas to help restore users' balance.
>> The company is applying to the federal Food and Drug Administration to
>> get
>> approval for a marketable version of the vision device that could be
>> available
>> by the end of the year, Wicab CEO Robert Beckman said.
>> Trying circumstances.
>> Few have tested BrainPort under more trying circumstances than Erik
>> Weihenmayer,
>> the only blind man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Weihenmayer,
>> totally
>> blind since the age of 16, has used the device to help him hike in the
>> woods,
>> even ascend climbing walls. But he has most appreciated it for letting
>> him do
>> such simple but rewarding tasks as playing tic-tac-toe with his daughter
>> or reaching down to pet his dog.
>> "I have a climbing friend who didn't believe me when I told him about
>> this,"
>> Weihenmayer said. "So he put a Pepsi can on my table in my kitchen while
>> I was
>> out of the room. Then he called me back in and told me to grab it. I
>> reached out
>> and grabbed the Pepsi can. He was blown away. He was speechless. He had
>> tears in his eyes.
>> "I mean, it may not seem like a real big deal to people, but to be able
>> to
>> see your coffee cup ... ."
>> Neither Behm nor Weihenmayer are paid consultants to Wicab, although the
>> company pays some of their expenses.
>> The late Paul Bach-y-Rita, a UW-Madison physician and specialist in
>> rehabilitation, first came up with the ideas that inspired BrainPort in
>> the 1960s. The technology was patented by UW-Madison in 1998, and
>> commercial
>> development has been under way for more than 10 years.
>> New ways to work.
>> Bach-y-Rita's earliest thinking about the brain's ability to adapt to
>> new ways
>> of receiving and processing information - its "plasticity," as it is
>> known now -
>> was likely sparked by the dramatic struggle of his father, Pedro, to
>> recover from a devastating stroke in the mid-1960s, Beckman said.
>> Neurologists in those days believed brain damage could not be reversed.
>> But
>> Bach-y-Rita's brother, George, soon put their father to work doing chores
>> such
>> as sweeping the porch of the house. Forced to accomplish more and more
>> difficult
>> tasks, their father eventually recovered completely and even went back to
>> his job teaching.
>> He died at the age of 73 of a heart attack while climbing in the
>> mountains of
>> Columbia.
>> Remarkably, studies of Pedro's brain after his death showed massive
>> damage to his brain from the stroke. Yet he recovered. Somehow, his
>> brain had found new ways to work.
>> At the UW-Madison, Bach-y-Rita focused his studies on sensory
>> substitution, the idea that the brain can learn how to use other senses
>> to replace one that has been lost or damaged. He concentrated on the
>> power of touch, studying what happens in the brain when visual cues come
>> from the sensitive nerves of the
>> skin, such as those on the fingertips.
>> Perfect organ.
>> Those studies buttressed others that showed the brain can indeed learn
>> how to use nerve impulses, delivered through touch, to create images.
>> Exactly what happens remains somewhat of a mystery. But more recently,
>> MRI images taken of the brain while it is working do show the visual
>> cortex of the brain
>> lighting up when receiving sensory data retrieved through touch.
>> "The information does get to the area of the brain that is responsible
>> for vision," said Kurt Kaczmarek, a UW-Madison engineer and scientist who
>> was involved in the early work on BrainPort.
>> The tongue is the perfect organ for the task, Beckman said, because it is
>> moist
>> and an excellent transmitter of electrical signals, and it has more
>> tactile nerve endings than any other part of the body except for the
>> lips.
>> Though one can read the science over and over again, it still requires
>> somewhat
>> of a leap of faith to grasp the idea of "seeing" through the tongue.
>> Simply, the
>> patterns of light picked up by the camera are converted by a tiny
>> computer into
>>> electrical pulses across 100 stainless steel electrodes. Users say it
>>> feels similar to touching a weak battery to your tongue, a bubbly or
>>> tingling sensation.
>> The pulses are spatially encoded, meaning the person receiving those
>> signals on the tongue can perceive depth, perspective, size and shape.
>> That information is translated by the brain into images - fuzzy images,
>> because of the low resolution, but images nonetheless. Those who have
>> used the device explain
>> that they perceive the objects in front of them, separate from their own
>> bodies. A milestone of sorts. Weihenmayer recalled how when he first
>> tried BrainPort, the researchers sat
>> him down at a table, fitted him with the device, and then rolled a ball
>> toward
>> him.
>> "It's a hard thing to wrap your brain around," said Weihenmayer. "But
>> when they
>> rolled a white tennis ball toward me, I could feel the ball rolling.
>> First I could feel the ball starting at the back of my tongue and
>> getting bigger and bigger, coming toward me. And then I reached out and
>> grabbed it."
>> When he ascends a rock climbing wall with BrainPort, Weihenmayer said, he
>> can see the handholds, their differences in shape and the contrast in
>> light between
>> them and the background. What he sees, he explained, is largely shapes
>> and light
>> variations, sort of an out-of-focus image.
>> Last month, Weihenmayer joined Beckman at the National Eye Institute's
>> 40th
>> anniversary celebration to demonstrate BrainPort and some of its powers.
>> It
>> seemed a milestone of sorts.
>> But the man whose genius led to the creation of such a useful invention
>> was not present. Bach-y-Rita died of cancer in November of 2006.
>> "He would have loved to have been there," said Beckman. 

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