Technology Science - Calgary shooting victim hopes for a taste of sight

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Jose Neto, shown here singing a Portuguese song in a CBC studio, has been chosen to test a new device that could help him \Jose Neto, shown here singing a Portuguese song in a CBC studio, has been chosen to test a new device that could help him "see" with his tongue. CBC

A young man blinded by a stray bullet in downtown Calgary will be taking part in a unique medical study he hopes could partially restore his sight.

Jose Neto has been chosen to test a prototype device called BrainPort, which sends information from a digital video camera to an electrical stimulation pad placed on the tongue.

Users report that they can "feel" black and white shapes, even letters, much like champagne bubbles on the tongue.

Neto will travel to the University of Pittsburg Medical Centre at the end of the month for a two-week study into the device, which he first learned about through news articles.

"I am really glad to be able to go down there…and be part of those studies," Neto said. "Few people get to go down there and try this device and I'm one of them."

Helps blind people with mobility

Besides the mouth device and sunglasses mounted with the camera, the blind person also has a handheld base unit, which can adjust contrast and zoom in and out.

The base unit pixilates the images from the digital camera and converts them to electrical pulses, which sends them to the "lollipop" in the mouth. The nerves on the tongue send the information to the brain, which reconstructs the image.

Within 15 minutes of using the device, the brain can begin interpreting the spatial information, although it takes hours of training to become adept.

"People use canes the vast majority of time, but the deficiency of a cane is that beyond the reach of a cane, you don't know what is going on," said Dr. Amy Nau, an assistant professor in the department of ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh.

She said this device helps people in day-to-day activities like finding an exit sign or an elevator button.

"We have subjects who are able to walk along a sideway unassisted because there is such a big contrast between the road and the sidewalk," Nau said. "So I think in terms of mobility this is going to enhance independence."

Neto was a Brazilian exchange student studying in Calgary when he was caught in gunfire on Sept. 16, 2008 while walking near Chinatown with his girlfriend. The couple,now married, have decided to stay in Calgary and apply for permanent residency.

A fundraising event will be held on May 27 at the Edgemont Community Centre. Neto's band will play at the event, which is meant to raise money to help pay for the expense of his trip to Pittsburgh and to purchase a BrainPort device if it becomes available for sale.

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