University of Pittsburgh
October 20, 2004

Pitt Team Developing Device to Facilitate Blinking in Patients with Facial Nerve Palsy

'Blink Right' team will display invention prototype Oct. 23 at Smithsonian Museum of American History
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH—A team of University of Pittsburgh students and professors will display its invention—a prosthetic device to stimulate blinking in patients suffering from facial nerve palsy—Oct. 23 at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Pitt's team is one of only six from colleges and universities across the country that have been invited to present working prototypes of their inventions during "Building Bionic Bodies," a two-day (Oct. 23-24) event that will examine the physical, ethical, social, and emotional consequences of implant technology. The event is sponsored by the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA).

The Pitt invention employs silicon chips and radio frequency technology to facilitate blinking with both eyes in people with Bell's palsy (facial paralysis thought to be caused by virally induced swelling of the seventh optical nerve) and other facial nerve damage.

"People with damage to the seventh optical nerve typically lose the ability to blink with one of their eyes," noted Marlin H. Mickle, Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor in Pitt's Department of Electrical Engineering and a faculty adviser to the University's NCIIA-funded "E-Team." (The "E" stands for excellence and entrepreneurship.) "If you can't blink an eye, that eye is likely to go blind simply because it can't protect itself against dust and other irritants in the air." Current treatments for Bell's palsy include bathing the afflicted eye almost continually with artificial tears, sewing the eyelid nearly shut, and surgically attaching tiny weights inside the eyelid. "None of those is a good solution, and all of them block some of your vision in that eye," said Mickle.

The original concept for Pitt's team of inventors—called the Blink Right E-Team—came from Michael B. Gorin, professor of ophthalmology in Pitt's School of Medicine. The idea involves implanting a tiny silicon chip in the lid of the good eye, and another chip (equipped with a tiny radio receiver) in the lid of the bad eye. "The chip in the good eye can detect either nerve function or muscle movement whenever that eye blinks," Mickle explained. "In response, it transmits a radio signal to the bad eye, telling it to blink, too, almost simultaneously with the good eye. The signal is transmitted via two other chips imbedded in the frame of a pair of eyeglasses."

The Blink Right project was developed at Pitt's Swanson Center for Product Innovation, of which Mickle is executive director. Other Pitt members of the Blink Right E-Team include Steven Hackworth, who earned the Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering degree in 2004, and Doreen Jacobs, who earned the Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering degree, also in 2004.

Faculty advisers to the team, in addition to Mickle, include Michael Lovell, a Pitt associate professor of industrial and mechanical engineering and the engineering school's associate dean for research, and Susan Tonya Stefko, an assistant professor in the Pitt School of Medicine's Department of Ophthalmology.

The NCIIA is an initiative of the Lemelson Foundation, a private philanthropy established by one of the country's most prolific inventors, Jerome Lemelson (1923-1997), and his family, supporting faculty and students who believe that invention and innovation are critical to American higher education. The NCIIA provides grant support to U.S. colleges and universities for the creation of student invention teams (E-Teams), courses, projects, networking opportunities, and resources for faculty and student innovators. Currently, 175 colleges and universities are members of NCIIA.

The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, in the Smithsonian's American History Museum, is dedicated to exploring invention in history and encouraging invention and creativity in young people. The NCIIA and the Lemelson Center are programs of the Lemelson Foundation.