n a mere half-decade, the use of light to stimulate the brain has moved from basic science to the frontiers of bioengineering. By inserting into brain cells a light-sensitive protein originally found in swamp algae, engineers and scientists have begun to manipulate neurons with a dexterity that could soon vastly outstrip the capabilities of today’s electrical brain stimulation methods. This month, Patrick Degenaar reported early progress toward a non-invasive prosthetic retina that uses light to force retinal ganglion cells to fire on command, presented at the IEEE Biomedical Circuits and Systems conference.
The KINARM combines a chair with robotic arms and a virtual-reality system that allows researchers to guide patients through tasks, such as hitting balls with virtual paddles.
Once the tests are done, the system gives a detailed report on how the patient differed from normal.
The system has several advantages over traditional testing methods, such as touching one’s finger or nose, said Prof. Stephen Scott of the Centre for Neuroscience Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
Currently, clinicians often assess patients with brain injuries and disease using crude, subjective scoring systems that range from zero to two, based on whether the patient can touch a nose or another object.
But those systems offer few choices, which makes to difficult to identify problems and show improvements after therapy, Scott said.