Bionic Eyes: Vision Into The Future

Feb 7, 2016 By Pranav Satish
Pranav Satish's picture

A huge breakthrough in the previously untreatable phenomenon of blindness has taken place recently.

Scientists at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford are undergoing a clinical trial to test the newfound ‘bionic eye’ implant to try and rekindle sight in six brave patients.

Rhian Lewis, 49, received the bionic eye after being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a toddler. This degenerative disease destroys the light-sensitive cells in the retina as the patient ages, making the victim completely blind in just a matter of time.

The disease is rare, with approximately 1 in 34,000 people diagnosed in the UK. Rhian described the feeling as ‘Christmas Day’ upon regaining her ability to read a clock after decades of almost total blindness.

The Technology

The technology behind the treatment is like something from a science fiction movie. A tiny chip, about 3x3 mm, is implanted into Rhian’s right eye, which is then connected to a computer that sits underneath her ear just below the surface of the skin.

When the device is turned on, signals are sent through the optic nerve and into the brain where these signals are processed. The ‘wiring’ inside Rhian’s brain is still intact but had not been used in so many years, meaning that she had to relearn how to process the images she could now receive! In other words, she had to learn how to see again.

The technology isn’t perfect. She initially sees flashes of light, as her brain is unable to process the signals. But in due course, these electrical impulses form shapes that can be modified using a handheld device that can adjust the contrast and frequency of the implant, like a remote control for your vision. The images are of poor quality but are completely life-changing for a blind patient who previously has hardly been mobile without assistance.

A Miracle For The Visually Impaired

Rhian had not been able to conduct simple tasks like climbing stairs for 6 years. With the implant, she was able to tell the time -- something that seems like a menial task for us is a miracle for the blind. The words ‘oh my god’ came from her mouth as she recognized it was 3 o’clock. The whole experience just puts into perspective the hardship that blind people go through every day over things we take for granted.

With almost 300 million people worldwide who are significantly impaired, this path-breaking treatment has huge potential to become a worldwide phenomenon. Improvements in the technology could herald an affordable, accessible cure for blindness.