Your Tongue Can See

ByABC News
September 6, 2006, 4:35 PM

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.