A British soldier who was blinded by a grenade in Iraq three years ago said his life has been transformed since he was fitted with a prototype BrainPort device that allows him to “see” with his tongue.

24-year old Lance Corporal Craig Lundberg from Walton in Liverpool, UK, told BBC News on Monday that while the device is only a prototype, it has a lot of potential to advance things for blind people: “the potential to change my life is massive,” he said.

The BrainPort device looks like a square plastic lollipop that connects via a wire to a tiny video camera mounted on sunglasses worn by the user. When users want to “see” their environment, they put the “lollipop” in their mouth and the video camera images are converted to electrical impulses that users sense with their tongue when it makes contact with the lollipop.

“One of the things it has enabled me to do is pick up objects straight away, I can reach out and pick them up when before I would be fumbling around to feel for them,” said Lundberg.

“It feels like licking a nine-volt battery or like popping candy,” he explained in a report published by the Guardian.

Lundberg was blinded while on patrol with the 2nd Battalion Duke of Lancaster’s in Basra in 2007.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD), who are expecting to spend about £18,000 on testing and training for the device, invited Lundberg to be the first to trial the BrainPort prototype: the hope is that it will bring enormous benefits for blind people.

The technology behind the visual aid version of BrainPort, which started life as a device that helps people with vestibular disorders keep their balance, is similar to the way a cochlear implant works.

Explaining how it works, Lundberg said:

“The camera sends signals down onto the lollypop and onto your tongue, you can then determine what they mean and transfer it to shapes.”

“You get lines and shapes of things, it sees in black and white so you get a two dimensional image on your tongue, it’s a bit like a pins and needles sensation,” he added.

You can’t speak or eat while using the current prototype of the BrainPort, but the designers are planning to make a smaller version that instead of a lollipop that goes in the mouth has a plate that sits behind the teeth or on the roof of the mouth, allowing it to be worn more less all the time and have a more natural look and feel.

The device currently has 400 points of contact with the tongue. The next version will probably have 4,000 points, delivering much clearer, higher resolution images to the user.

BrainPort is made by Wicab Inc of Middleton, Wisconsin in the United States, a company established by American neuroscientist Dr Paul Bach-y-Rita in 1998.

Bach-y-Rita, who died in 2006, was a pioneer in the field of neuroplasticity, and the first scientist to introduce the idea of “sensory substitution” (feeding signals from one sense into the brain circuits of another) to treat patients with disabilities.

In the meantime, Lundberg said he is keeping his guide dog, a black labrador called Hugo.

Sources: BBC News, Guardian, Wikipedia.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD