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ARRA Investments in Low Vision

Public Health Burden
Conservative estimates suggest that there are at least 3.5 to 5 million Americans who are visually impaired, and more than 1 million of these are legally blind. These figures undoubtedly underestimate the problem. However, many people experience functional limitations due to vision loss even though they do not meet the criteria for legal blindness. Even relatively mild impairment of vision can affect the performance of everyday tasks such as driving, reading, and walking. When more broadly defined as visual problems that hamper the performance and enjoyment of everyday activities, other recent estimates indicate that almost 14 million Americans suffer from visual impairment. Older adults represent the majority of the visually impaired population. Visual impairment is included among the 10 most prevalent causes of disability in the United States.   

Psychometric measures for characterizing disability and assessing quality of life issues have been applied to rehabilitation research for evaluating the outcomes of intervention programs.

Technologies for low vision enhancement and wayfinding have permitted advances in mobility research on ways people with normal vision and visual impairment get around using visual, auditory, and touch as cues from the environment.

Leveraging mainstream technologies to develop assistive technologies have significantly benefited people with visual impairments. Accessibility requirements have been incorporated into internet standards; text-to-speech and speech-to-text software programs have improved, and magnified text. New embossing technologies that produce dynamic tactile cues give people who are blind better access to graphics.

The deployment of assistive technologies such as GPS-based navigation systems, talking signs, auditory signals at street crossings, and barcoding schemes for labeling locations and objects. Portable assistive devices that enhance residual vision also represent important gains.

Brain-imaging technologies have increased the understanding of changes in the visual system related to visual deficits and impairments have guided rehabilitation strategies.

Basic and Clinical Research:
Low vision research has benefited from research on the visual system from other fields.  This work incudes visual neuroscience, bioengineering research aimed at characterizing and enhancing residual vision as well as creating devices and developing assistive technologies with the goal of guiding and developing rehabilitation strategies.  Research on brain plasticity reveals how one sensory system can substitute for another, such as touch for vision.  Researchers in these areas have helped to develop the concept of sensory substitution where one sense can be leveraged to generate perception by substituting for another which is limited or absent.

In order to continue with these accomplishments, NIH ARRA funds were used to further support basic and clinical research:
  • Study the efficacy of a pedagogic minimal Geographic Information System interface designed to enhance spatial thinking, analysis, and learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines of students who are blind or with low vision 1
  • Development and testing of a tongue brain-machine interface capable of providing sensory substitution as a navigation and object recognition device for blind persons 2
  • Development of a novel electro-active polymer actuator technology to be used for a refreshable full page Braille display and graphic display3
  • Using brain imaging to study what happens to the visual processing regions of the brain when its input is cut off by retinal macular degeneration in an effort to develop better methods of vision rehabilitation4
  • Develop an eye movement model that can predict task-dependent fixation patterns in patients with retinal macular degeneration and other causes of central field loss5
Summer Student Supplements:
  • One ARRA administrative supplement was awarded to hire undergraduate summer research students who would have been otherwise unemployed to involve them directly in low vision research at the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston, MA 6

  1. 1RC1EY020316-01, Exploiting the Power of GIS to Enhance Spatial Thinking, Eugene OR, (PI Amy Lobben).
  2. 3R01EY014105-05S1, Vision Substitution through the Tongue, Middleton, WI, (PI Aimee Arnoldussen).
  3. 3R01EY018387-02S1, Braille Display using EAP, University Park, PA, (PI Qiming Zhang).
  4. 3R01EY016159-04S1, Reorganization of Visual Cortex in Macular Disease, Cambridge, MA, (PI Nancy Kanwisher)
  5. 3R01EY018004-03S1, CRCNS: Where to Look Next? Modeling Eye Movements in Normal and Impaired Vision, San Francisco, CA, (PI Laura Renninger).
  6. 3R01EY012890-08S1, Engineering Approaches to Low Vision Rehabilitation, Boston, MA (PI Eli Peli).

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