National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research
Advocacy Center
Become an Advocate for Vision Research
Eye Fact Center
Press Center
Newsletters
Spread the Word
Tell Your Story
Link to Our Site
Resources and Links
Privacy Policy
Site Map
NAEVR in Action
About the Alliance National Eye Institute Contact Us
Become an Advocate for Vision Research - Join the Action List
Speak Up for Eye and Vision Research
Enter Your Zip Code   
 

 

Inaugural NEI 40th Anniversary Event Features Blind Mountain Climber, New Technology to Get Visual Signals to the Brain

Left to right: NEI Director Paul Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., Ed Weihenmayer (Erik’s father), Erik Wiehenmayer, NEI program Director Michael Oberdorfer, Ph.D., and Robert Beckman, President and CEO of Wicab, Inc.
Left to right: NEI Director Paul Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., Ed Weihenmayer (Erik’s father), Erik Wiehenmayer, NEI program Director Michael Oberdorfer, Ph.D., and Robert Beckman, President and CEO of Wicab, Inc.
On April 3, the National Eye Institute (NEI) initiated a series of events to celebrate its 40th anniversary as the National Institute of Health (NIH)’s lead Institute for vision research. The NIH campus-based event, hosted by NEI Director Paul Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., featured blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer, who was visually impaired at birth by a genetic eye condition called retinoschisis and completely blind by age 13. Weihenmayer spoke and premiered his film Blindsight, which documented how he, his team, and six blind Tibetan teenagers journeyed up the north face of Mount Everest.

The program also featured groundbreaking technology being supported by the NEI that uses the tongue to get visual signals to the brain. BrainPort, developed by Madison, Wisconsin-based Wicab, Inc., uses a camera mounted on a person’s head to send electronic signals to a small, flat surface attached to a person’s tongue. The tongue then sends visual cues to the brain that includes sizes, shapes, and relative distances. Michael Oberdorfer, Ph.D., who serves as the NEI’s Director of the Strabismus, Amblyopia and Visual Processing, and Low Vision and Blindness Rehabilitation Programs, described the technology’s ability to employ the “plasticity of the brain” in seeking other avenues to obtain and process information, such as sensory substitution used for other systems such as Braille. BrainPort, which requires training the brain incrementally using daily practice sessions, has been under development for about 12 years, with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval pending.

Weihenmayer noted that he has been involved for about five years in testing the BrainPort device and providing user feedback. “I thought it was cool how quickly my brain caught on to what I was feeling with my tongue,” he said, adding that “I felt the ball start rolling from the back of my tongue. It started smaller and got bigger.”

NAEVR and several of its Washington-based network members participated in the event.


The BrainPort device

Rebecca Hyder (left) and Cathy Cohen (right) from the American Academy of Ophthalmology with Rosemary Janiszewski (center), NEI’s Associate Director for Communication, Health Education, and Public Liaison, who coordinated the event