Can’t See? We’ve Got An Eye For That

Editor’s Note: This post is by Areade Dare,  a Research Analyst at Financial Derivatives Company Limited. You can follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn.  You can also check out his blog. Enjoy the piece.

I am serious we actually do will have an eye for that, a bionic eye that is. They are not as elaborate as the bionic eyes seen in Steve Spielberg’s “Minority Report”; but recent developments in bionic eye research suggest the visually impaired will be able to see in the near future.

Conceptually a visual prosthesis (Often referred to as a “Bionic Eye”) is a visual device aimed at restoring functional vision in individuals suffering from partial or total blindness. However, rectifying sight depends largely on the conditions that led to loss of sight.

Recently I watched a Sky News report about a British man, suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, who was being fitted with the first Bionic eye implant in the United Kingdom. The report stated that the implant is intended only for patients who suffer from this medical condition. After being blind for almost 20 years, he was able achieve rudimentary vision after going through the implant surgery. He could make out objects but could not perceive colours, and the resolution of his vision was not ideal. Some of these shortcomings can be attributed to the fact that his brain is still learning how to see again. It isn’t a cure but still a monumental leap nonetheless.

In my final year in college, I took a course where my team members and I worked on a prototype visual prosthesis project. Needless to say we went in with some grand ideas about how the vision chip would be solar powered amongst other things. However when the team actually delved into how it intended to make the chip work, we quickly discovered we were in over our heads.

I mean the human eye the marvel that is, is also a very sensitive and complicated organ. The truth is that creating a chip that perceives visual stimuli on behalf of the eye; and then converts it into pulsed electrical impulses that stimulate the retina is no walk in the park. There is a reason why people have been researching this field for years but it was honestly a great learning experience.


*Simplified representation of subretinal prosthesis (Not drawn to scale)

The project we did was targeted at subretinal prosthesis that is intended for patients who suffer vision loss due to deterioration of photoreceptors in their eye. This kind of prostheses requires that the optical nerve be fully developed in order for the visual prosthesis implants to work. For people born blind it is trickier as their optical nerves are not fully developed.

There are currently four approaches being adopted for the development of the bionic eye:

1.       Cortical prosthetics

The implant is plugged directly into the visual cortex of the brain. The intention is to stimulate the visual cortex, as this is where the majority of visual processing occurs.

2.       Epiretinal implants

The implant uses an external camera that passes information to a chip on or at the back of the retina.

3.       Subretinal implants (The most popular)

Surgically implanted onto the surface of the retina, the chip produces electronic signals. The chip detects light and then generates a pulsed electrical signal that is fed to the optic nerve.

4.       Optic Nerve stimulation

The implant, a spiral cuff nerve electrode, is wrapped around the optic nerve and stimulates its nerve fibres through the implant.

It will be interesting to see which one of these methods will succeed in replicating regular vision. Over the past two decades, biotechnology as a field has proliferated, with new devices going into clinical trials at a rapid rate. The bionic eye is not an exception. A company named Second Sight has already gained approval for its visual prosthesis device named the “Argus II”, for commercial use in Europe in 2011.

An application for FDA approval in the US is pending, the device is expected to cost around $115,000. Retina Implant AG, a German-based start-up, is also carrying out trials of a similar device in several countries. The company developed the implant used for the first bionic eye implant in the UK. In Australia, a bionic eye prototype has been developed by Bionic Vision Australia and will undergo clinical trials in 2013.

The race is on to develop a bionic eye that can provide functional artificial vision. Governments and private interests have made additional major investments into research teams from Australia and Europe to American Universities. The potential commercial success of a functional bionic eye cannot be understated. The amount of lives that it could potentially change is even bigger.


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