Your Tongue Can See

ByABC News

Sept. 6, 2006 — -- Mike Ciarciello has been blind since birth but says that in his dreams he can actually see.

"I have had dreams where I have been flying, you know, like in the air. I am not even bumping into any obstacles whatsoever. I am actually free, in my dreams," he said.

His dreams are closer to reality than you might imagine. He is about to participate in an experiment in which he will "see" by using his tongue.

At the University of Montreal, researcher Daniel Chabat prepared Ciarciello to walk for the first time through an obstacle course without his cane. Chabat began by mounting a small camera on Ciarciello's forehead. The camera sends electrical impulses about what it sees to a small grid placed on his tongue.

"It's a concept in which you replace a sense that was lost by another one that is there," said Maurice Ptito, the neuropsychologist supervising the study. "They sense the world through their tongue, and that gives them the feeling of seeing. You don't see with your eyes. You see with your brain."

When ABC News correspondent Bob Brown tried The BrainPort vision device in an informal experiment, his challenge was to identify black shapes placed on a wall in front of him. As the camera scanned the shapes Brown described the feeling on his tongue as a tingling sensation.

"It's a pulsing sensation that imprints in a crude way the shape of the object," he said. "The closer I move to the object, the more the feeling intensifies."

The tongue is used as the source of input because it is the first organ that we use, Ptito said.

"We've been using the tongue since we were born," he said. "It's easily accessible; it's a wet milieu, so it's a nice conductor. So it's a really fine tuned machine, so to speak."

Once Ciarciello had the camera mounted and connected to the grid on his tongue, he was ready to head into what for him was completely uncharted territory: the obstacle course.

"I hope it's going to be a great experience in the sense that I'm able to actually walk around an object without bumping into it and at my own will," Ciarciello said.

As he walked through the obstacle course for the first time, he bumped into objects. It takes training to learn to interpret the signals on the tongue, to sense the distance of objects and whether they're on the floor or in front of him, Ptito said.

"It took some getting used to, because I had to basically look up and down, left and right," Ciarciello said. "I am not used to doing that in an everyday world-type situation."

But after just two hours of training he was walking through the maze, hitting fewer and fewer obstacles. For the first time, Ciarciello was able to sense objects in the distance, too far away to touch. His tongue, in a sense, was substituting for his sight.

"They believe that they can see. In the sense that they appreciate the visual world, they can see things moving around, they can see things coming to them," Ptito said.

It may be more than just a belief, because when researchers scan the brains of sightless people who have used the device the scan shows activity in both the visual and motion areas of the brain, showing that one sense is being substituted for another.

The BrainPort™ vision device was developed by Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita of the University of Wisconsin.

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