Some disabilities, such as blindness have long been beyond
the limits of our medical and technological prowess to cure. While
significant advances have been made in preventing sight loss, many chronic,
irreversible conditions remain that can lead to blindness. However, recent
breakthroughs have turned science fiction into reality, offering limited
vision to the fully
Second Sight Vision, a U.S. company located near Los Angeles, is becoming the
pioneering enterprise in commercial electro-ocular implants. Starting as
early as 2004, it began carrying out research a series of 15 implants.
The implants are part of a trial that has been going on for over three years,
with patients in the U.S., Europe, and Mexico. The trial is the first of
On Monday, two
British citizens received the implants at London's Moorfields Eye Hospital.
The two men, both in their 50s, were completely blind before the
operation. If successful, the operation should grant them limited vision
allow them to navigate around obstacles and see objects. The operation to
implant the artificial implants inside the existing ocular tissue takes about 3
hours. The retinas cost about $23,000 USD and are predicted to be
approved for general use within three years.
Lyndon da Cruz, the surgeon who performed both operations, was optimistic about
the patients’ chances. He stated, "The devices were implanted
successfully in both patients and they are recovering well from the
Both men in the trial have retinitis pigmentosa. This disease strikes at
the eye's light-sensitive retinal cells, killing them and eliminating the eye's
ability to transform light into a series of electrical impulses. The inability
to convey these impulses leads to blindness. Over 25,000 people are affected
by retinitis pigmentosa in Britain alone.
The implant could also offer relief to people with other
conditions which render the optic nerve intact, but inoperative. With
360,000 registered as blind or partially sighted, and 2 million listed as
severely vision impaired, in Britain alone, this technology could benefit
Cruz added, "Conceptually it could be used for anyone with extremely poor
vision but a physically intact optic nerve. The sort of vision we are getting
is not good quality but as the thing gets better it will open up to more and
The implant, known as the Argus II, relies on a three-step process.
Information is first collected via a wireless camera attached to a pair of
glasses. The camera transmits the signal to a small processing computer
about the size of a small MP3 player, located on the users’ belt area.
This device in turn communicates with the ultra thin electronic receiver
implanted on the side of the eye. This receiver finally conveys the
message to an array of electrodes implanted in the retinal region, stimulating
the optic nerve.
The current version uses 60 electrodes in an array to allow viewing of objects
on a 10 by 6 resolution grid of light and dark spots. This allows people
the ability to see a wide range of shapes. A cruder early version of the
device utilized a 4 by 4 grid, with 16 electrodes. Even the 16 electrode
versions are pretty effective, though. Linda Morfoot, 64, living in Long
Beach, California, has suffered from retinitis pigmentosa from her initial
diagnosis at 21, and by 50 was almost entirely blind. She received an
implant of the 4x4 version in 2004.
She says the device is life changing and a complete success. She explained,
"When they gave me the glasses it was just amazing. I can shoot
baskets with my grandson, I can stay in the middle of the sidewalk. I can find
the door to get out of a room, and I can see my granddaughter dancing across
the stage. When we went to New York I could see the Statue of Liberty,
how big it was. In Paris we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower at night, and I
could see all the city lights. I feel more connected to what's around me."
With the success of the initial trials and the incredible dedications of Second
Sight Vision and the medical community, commercial success for the firm seems
inevitable. And with it, surely the technology will be further refined,
providing higher resolution viewing, and perhaps one day color vision.
Barbara McLauglan, Eye Health Campaign Manager at Royal National Institute for
the Blind (RNIB) is among those who can't wait -- she says the device is
amazing. She remarked, "We very much welcome the progress that is
being made with this type of technology. While 50 per cent of sight loss can be
prevented, we must not forget that there are conditions that cannot be treated
at present such as dry age-related macular degeneration and retinitis
pigmentosa. An improved bionic eye that allows blind people to see more
of their surroundings will improve their mobility and quality of life. RNIB
will continue to monitor progress in this area with great interest over the
next few years."
In the United States, 598,000 people are legally blind. Worldwide, the
World Health Organization estimates 37 million (about 0.6 percent of the total
world population) to be blind.