Bionic Eye Helping People to See

“We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”

Those opening lines from the 1970s television show, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” just may be coming true in the 2010s. In the show, astronaut Steve Austin got a bionic eye after surviving a crash. Now people suffering from a rare genetic disease are the recipients of the world’s first bionic eye.

The medical device, developed by California-based Second Sight Medical Products and called the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, has been implanted into 60 people to help them partially recover their sight, reports Medical Xpress.com. “It’s the first bionic eye to go on the market in the world, the first in Europe and the first one in the U.S.,” says Brian Mech, the company’s vice president of business development.

The beneficiaries of the device are people who suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disease. The disorder degenerates the retinal photoreceptors and affects about 100,000 people in the United States.

“The way the prosthesis works [is] it replaces the function of the photoreceptors,” Mech says. The device consists of 60 electrodes implanted in the retina and glasses fitted with a special camera. The photoreceptor cells bionic eyeconvert light into tiny electrochemical impulses that are transmitted along the optic nerve. When they reach the brain, the impulses are decoded into images.

Patients have varying results of success. “We had some patients who got just a little bit of benefit and others who could do amazing things like reading newspaper headlines,” Mech says.

Some recipients of the device can even see in color. “Mostly they see in black and white, but we have demonstrated more recently we can produce color vision as well,” Mech says.

The device has won the approval of European regulators. The developers expect that the U.S Food and Drug Administration will soon follow suit. The device costs about $99,000 in Europe, but the price in the United States has not been determined yet.

Other researchers are making similar devices. Scientists at MIT are working on a system that would have up to 400 electrodes. And researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia have a device that can help blind people see basic shapes.

Source: “Bionic eye gives hope to the blind,” Medical Xpress.com, 1/5/13
Source: “Second Sight EN 2012 Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System,” YouTube
Image by Ramon FVelasquez.