The idea of helping the blind see again by electrical brain stimulation was launched a half century ago, in 1968, but technical advances in retina implants are surging now that researchers are able to experiment with 3D printers and newly discovered compounds.

Take a look at the Argus II, approved by the FDA for adults with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) who previously had functional eyesight. Developed by the University of Minnesota, the device is a prosthetic eyeball implanted with sensors. It’s attached to a pair of glasses that contain a tiny video camera. Data is transmitted in real time from camera, to bionic eye, to the brain — allowing the users to see distorted but potentially identifiable images.

Second Sight, the company marketing the new device, says it will allow users to detect basics like paved walkways and the presence of people, along with the potential to enjoy their dinner plate, the moon and Christmas lights. Argus II has already been implanted in 350 people across the country.

This is just one of a number of bionic eye devices that are available throughout the world, many of them in monitored trials. There are still major caveats. The devices only work for blind people suffering from retina deterioration, primarily RP, an inherited disease that causes a slow but steady loss of eyesight. Starting in childhood, the disease slowly destroys the retina - the layer in the eyeball that transmits light rays into nerve impulses through cells called “rods and cones.” Those impulses are sent to the optic nerve in the brain, which sorts them into images. Most of those suffering from the disease are legally blind by the time they’re 40.

RP is associated with other genetic conditions and is thought to affect 1 in every 4,000 Americans. That leaves millions of other blind people, especially those blind since birth, who can’t currently be helped with bionic stimulated sight.

Also the imagery is still too crude to allow users to drive, read or easily navigate the world. But the advances hold promise that the clunky glasses, camera and implants will soon become lighter, sharper and more widely available. Eventually, they could become as common as hearing aids or prosthetic limbs.

(Some video courtesy of Second Sight and Pixium Vision)

Published on Nov 15, 2019