A proof-of-concept study published in the journal Nano Letters, reports how a groundbreaking new material can activate brain neurons in response to light without the use of wires to an external source of energy or light.

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A new material based on wireless nanotechnology that can make brain cells react to light shows promise as a potential artificial retina.

The team, led by Yael Hanein, a professor in the School of Electrical Engineering at Tel Aviv University (TAU) in Israel, hopes their new material – which uses nanotechnology – will one day help restore sight to retinas damaged by diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – the leading cause of central vision loss worldwide.

Nanotechnology is a rapidly growing field where you can manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular scale to create materials with remarkable and varied new properties.

Other teams are also working on implant devices that use various technologies that “see” light and send visual signals to the brain and counter the effects of AMD and other vision loss diseases.

But the team behind the new study notes that many of these approaches use metallic parts and cumbersome wiring or produce low-resolution images.

Prof. Hanein, who also heads TAU’s Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, says, “Compared to the technologies tested in the past, this new device is more efficient, more flexible, and can stimulate neurons more effectively.”

“The new prosthetic is compact, unlike previous designs that used wires or metals while attempting to sense light,” she adds. “Additionally, the new material is capable of higher spatial resolution, whereas older designs struggled in this area.”

The groundbreaking material that has the potential to replace a damaged retina is a wireless, light-sensitive, flexible film made of semiconductor nanorods and carbon nanotubes.

The team tested the artificial retina material with chick retinas that were not yet light-sensitive and showed it could make brain cells react to light.

There is still a long way to go before the new material replaces a damaged retina. The researchers believe people with AMD – which usually affects the over-60s and damages a specific part of the retina – are likely to be among the first to benefit if tests in animals show it is suitable for long-term use.

Funds for the study came from the Israel Ministry of Science and Technology, the European Research Council, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Another eye problem that develops with age is presbyopia – loss of near vision – which affects a billion people and more worldwide. In October 2014, Medical News Today learned about the development of corneal inlays that remove the need for reading glasses.

Reporting the results of a study, the researchers said the KAMRA inlay improved near vision well enough for 80% of 507 participants to be able to read a newspaper without impairing far distance vision for common activities such as driving.