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Blind attorney captures images on her tongue

| Monday, Jan. 3, 2011, 12:00 p.m.

Until a few weeks ago, Natalie Ruschell wouldn't dare try walking through a cluttered room without a cane or her guide dog.

Yet, there she was recently in a cold basement in Homestead, gingerly making her way through a maze of padded blocks and balls, guided only by BrainPort technology.

"There's one," she said, pointing toward a white Styrofoam plank dangling in her path. "I hate those things."

These were the first steps Ruschell, 51, of Midway took on her own since a diabetes-related hemorrhage blinded her at age 23.

"It felt like I could see them," she said after navigating the 40-foot course at the Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Service center in 3 minutes, 26.41 seconds.

The BrainPort device translates images captured by a camera mounted on a pair of glasses into low-voltage impulses that are transmitted to a blind person's tongue. It is considered investigational, and hasn't earned a safety endorsement by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The images are fuzzy, similar to those composed on a dot matrix machine.

Researchers are hopeful this could become a bridge to independence for patients who lose sight.

Dr. Amy Nau, director of Optometric and Low Vision Services at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is careful to not call BrainPort a quick fix; patients must train their brains to accept and interpret the images, she said.

Diagnosed with diabetes at age 12, Ruschell was in her final year of law school when she awakened to darkness on Feb. 10, 1987.

Doctors later told her she suffered a hemorrhage in her sleep, which robbed her of vision.

Ruschell made state history in 1988 when she passed the bar exam and became the first blind woman to practice law in Pennsylvania. She reads Braille, but, like many diabetics, needs to prick her fingers for daily blood-sugar readings.

"Being able to see again one day would be great, but what I'm hoping for more is getting my independence again," she said.

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