Sensory Replacement and the Need for Understanding Sensory Function

To the layperson, sensory replacement might seem conceptually straightforward — just take an electronic sensor (e.g., microphone or video camera) and then use its amplified signal to drive an array of neurons somewhere within the appropriate sensory pathway. This simplistic conception of "sensory organ replacement" fails to recognize the complexity of processing that takes place at the many stages of processing in the sensory pathway. Take the case of hearing. Replacing an inoperative cochlea involves a lot more than taking the amplified signal from a microphone and using it to stimulate a collection of auditory nerve fibers. The cochlea is a complex transducer that plays sound out in terms of frequency along the length of the cochlea. Thus, the electronic device that replaces the inoperative cochlea must duplicate its sensory function. In particular, the device needs to perform a running spectral analysis of the incoming acoustic signal and then use the intensity and phase in the various frequency channels to drive the appropriate auditory nerve fibers. This one example shows how designing an effective sensory replacement begs detailed knowledge about the underlying sensory processes. The same goes for cortical implants for blind people. Simply driving a large collection of neurons in primary visual cortex by signals from a video camera after a simple spatial sorting to preserve retinotopy overlooks the preprocessing of the photoreceptor signals being performed by the intervening synaptic levels in the visual pathway. The most effective cortical implant will be one that stimulates the visual cortex in ways that reflect the normal preprocessing performed up to that level, such as adaptation to the prevailing illumination level.

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