Multisensory perception can help the blind

CHUV Neurophysiology Experiment

Session at the Laboratory for Investigative Neurophysiology (LINE), directed by Micah Murray. The person wears an EEG system with 128 electrodes. She must identify birds by their distinctive songs. A very difficult task. To help her, the names and photographs of the birds are shown. An example of multisensory learning. (© Patrick Dutoit, SASM-CHUV)

Micah MurrayMicah Murray is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Biology and Medicine.
Elisabeth Gordon / Allez savoir!
As a specialist in the way our brain perceives and processes information received through sight or hearing, Murray was quite naturally led to also explore potential ways of restoring lost senses.

As a specialist in the way our brain perceives and processes information received through sight or hearing, Murray was quite naturally led to also explore potential ways of restoring lost senses. To this end, the UNIL professor is working on blindness. He was recently appointed as director of the Institute for Research in Ophthalmology and Neuroscience (IRON), supported by the Fondation Asile des aveugles (Asylum for the Blind Foundation) and the IRO Foundation in the Swiss city of Sion.

One avenue being explored to try to restore sight to the blind is to implant an artificial retina or “bionic eye” for them. The Jules Gonin Eye Hospital in Lausanne was incidentally the first hospital in Switzerland to perform this type of operation in 2014. But these electronic prostheses “are expensive,” says Murray. “What’s more, for the moment they have only a low resolution and they can’t fully restore vision”.

A smartphone application

This is why the neuroscientist has favoured another approach, which aims to “use another of the senses which is intact, in this case hearing, and redirect it to the visual brain area,” so that it replaces the faulty vision.

In collaboration with an Israeli colleague, he’s set about adopting this method called “sensory substitution” by using a simple device. It’s “an application, downloadable from a smartphone, which takes photos and transforms the image into sound information which the brain can ‘see’ and process. This process is non-invasive and costs next to nothing”. This system provides information on the nature and even the colour of the object being photographed.

Studies with blind people have already started, first in Israel and now the Jules Gonin Eye Hospital. The challenge is knowing how to train patients so that they make the most of sensory substitution.

Likewise taking advantage of the Lausanne-based educational centre for visually handicapped pupils, the neuroscientists intends to test his method on children. “No such study has been carried out with them before, even though they’re much more skilled than adults at using electronic devices,” he notes.

A hand-held, white, electronic walking stick

Continuing in this vein, the professor is also interested in white, electronic walking sticks. These devices, which take the form of cases slightly larger than a TV remote, “contain an ultrasonic sensor which vibrates even harder when an obstacle is near”. They also provide 3D-information and all you have to do is point the sensor upwards “to avoid bumping into objects like tree branches above your head”.

For scientists, the use of these devices raises questions which Murray is currently looking into. After all, the blind and partially sighted struggle to “get an accurate idea of the space they’re in and their body’s position in it. We’re therefore looking to find out whether the electronic cane will allow them to recover all or part of this function”. Suffice to say that these studies are a great source of hope.

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