‘Bionic Eye’ Helps the Blind to Partially See

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a “bionic eye” that allows blind people to see again – at least to an extent.

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Martin Cleaver / AP

Eric Selby, 68, uses a "sight" camera fitted to a pair of glasses and Argus II implants in his right eye to detect light.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a “bionic eye” that allows blind people to see again – at least to an extent.

The Argus II system, which is already in use in Europe, is designed to help patients with retinitis pigmentosa – a rare genetic disorder that damages and kills light-processing cells in the retina, and affects around 100,000 Americans, writes the WSJ.

A miniature camera mounted on a pair of glasses transmits images to a belt-worn video processor. There, the images are converted into patterns of light and dark. This data is then sent wirelessly to a sheet of electrodes implanted in the retina, simulating pixels of light that the eye ‘sees’. This information is then sent to the brain and processed normally as an image, as this video from the Argus II’s manufacturer, Second Sight Medical Products of California, explains:

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The device, which costs about $150,000 not including implant surgery or training,  can’t make a blind person see — at least not in the normal sense.

But it can allow them to identify contours and boundaries of objects, particularly when there is contrast between light and dark – allowing them to distinguish, for example, curbs from asphalt roads whilst walking along.

“Without the system, I wouldn’t be able to see anything at all, and if you were in front of me and you moved left and right, I’m not going to realize any of this,” 74-year-old Elias Konstantopolous, who is one of about 50 people who have been using the Argus II in trials for several years, told the New York Times. “When you have nothing, this is something. It’s a lot.”

Dr. Mark S. Humayun, an ophthalmologist and biomedical engineer at the University of Southern California, spent 20 years developing the device. He told the New York Times that he envisions using the technology to treat other conditions such as  bladder control problems or spinal paralysis by implanting electrodes in those parts of the body.

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