A woman receives the world’s first bionic eye, a technological advancement that could mean “seeing the future” for many blind people.
|Retina Implant AG was the first to develop this retinal implant.|
The world of prosthetics has entered a new realm of medical technology. The introduction of the bionic arm, some years ago, allowed users to control a prosthesis by utilizing the brain’s nerve impulses. Although the process required a rigorous training program on how to control the impulses, the success rate was astounding. One such training method required the patient to move his tongue in very specific ways, triggering the nerves to send signals to the arm. Now, there is a new development in bionics: the eye implant.
The bionic eye has been approved for trials in the USA for individuals who suffer from degenerative eye diseases like macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa. This could benefit millions of people in the world who have lost their sight. While not all patients would be candidates for this type of prosthetic, patients specifically with a functional visual pathway from the retina to the brain along the optical nerve” or those with “some intact retinal cells could benefit. The prosthetic is still in the developmental stages, but one lucky woman was the first to try out the new device. She explains “I didn’t know what to expect, but all of a sudden, I could see a little flash – it was amazing…. Every time there was stimulation, there was a different shape that appeared in front of my eye.”
The innovative device consists of a camera that is mounted on glasses that sends images to a microchip worn on an external unit. A radio transmitter and receiver send impulses through a thin implanted wire to the retinal implant. The implant contains 60 electrodes that allow impulses to be sent to the brain, which processes the impulses as images. In order to further develop the device and perfect it, doctors can monitor these images to see what each patient sees. There are even more sophisticated implants in the making as well, which will not require the use of a camera or microchips in external housing devices. These devices will be implanted behind the retina and will be unnoticeable. Each device will contain over 1,000 electrodes to help accelerate image clarity and processing.
These implants work by sending electric impulses to a video processor that represent light and dark and reassemble them as pixels in the shape of the object being viewed. The information travels through wires and implants in the body and into an electrode array that acts as an artificial photo receptor in the retina. Then the signals travel to the visual center of the brain, just like in healthy eyes. The brain can then process the image, and the patient can see.
The technology is far from complete, and the images are vague, dark, and fuzzy; but it is a step in the right direction. Scientists predict that they may have an implant within the next few years that can replicate natural sight at a near perfect level, even to the point of facial recognition.