Bionic Eyes: Implants Give Retinal Disease Patients a Second Chance

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Bionic eyes could help patients with retinal disease.

In February 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, also referred to as the bionic eye. Developed by Dr. Patrick Degenaar and his team at Newcastle University, the fake eyes are intended to help sufferers of retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that affects one out of every 3,500 people in the United States. The progressive disease gradually leads to visual field loss and retinal degeneration, a diagnosis that’s devastating to those who have grown accustomed to living with normal vision.

While the bionic eyes don’t allow patients to see in any great detail, patients with bionic eyes are able to distinguish shapes and forms. Those who have received the implant can navigate places without a cane and see flashes of lights in a pixilated fashion that allow them to make better sense of their surroundings. In the future, the bionic eye technology may be used to restore sight to wounded soldiers, those suffering from other types of degenerative vision conditions, and patients with advanced forms of diabetes and glaucoma.

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, usually referred to as simply the “Argus II”, is a complex system built by a team of doctors and nurses who are building the next generation of clinical techniques that will revolutionize modern medicine. The eye implant works by bypassing the damaged retina and sending light wave signals directly to the optic nerve. A small chip is attached to the back of the eye with multiple electrodes offering 60 points of stimulation—enough to allow patients to reconstruct scenes and objects.

Wires from the implanted device connect to a pair of glasses, which have a camera at the bridge of the nose. The images are relayed to a small computer worn in a belt pack, which are then processed and transmitted as visual information to the implant which passes them onto the retina and eventually the brain. Although 60 points of stimulation is the standard amount in the current technology, researchers hope to increase that number to a several hundred so that patients can one day recognize faces, read, or even drive independently.

A Simple Procedure

While the technology may seem complicated, it’s a relatively simple procedure for patients. The surgery to implant the bionic eye takes just a few hours, and patients are able to go home the same day. The implant wraps around one of their eyes and is secured by a tiny tack the size of human hair. A week later, patients return to the doctor’s office to get the glasses, have their new electrodes tuned, and to be trained on how to use the system. Built into the converter box are knobs that let the patient increase or decrease brightness and contrast. Once the patient is comfortable using the system, they’re sent home with a new pair of eyes.

Other Technologies

It’s important to note that the Argus II technology cannot be used by blind people, since patients must have an intact retina for the implant to work. Those who have completely lost their vision to things like diabetes, glaucoma, or retinal injuries cannot use the Argus II system. Fortunately, other technologies are in the works: researchers at the same university are working on a completely different approach that connects a microchip implant directly to the human brain. In doing so, the retinal layer is bypassed and vision can be restored to those who are completely blind and/or have never experienced sight before in their lives.

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