An artist's rendition of the implants and the transmitter.  (Source: Second Sight)

A diagram of how the implant relays its information, first from the camera, next to the processor, and finally to the implanted receiver/electrode pair.  (Source: The Telegraph UK)
Exciting breakthroughs promise partial vision to blind, though much research work remains

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 blind.

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 its kind.

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 operations."

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 millions worldwide.

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 more people."

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.

"This week I got an iPhone. This weekend I got four chargers so I can keep it charged everywhere I go and a land line so I can actually make phone calls." -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

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