Curing the condition of blindness is often associated with certain miracles said to have been performed by Jesus in Bible stories, with modern medicine research struggling to find a solution to forms of blindness which have been long considered as incurable.
But now a recent trials carried out by scientists at Oxford University may have found a breakthrough by inserting ‘electronic retina’ implants into blind patients.
Bionic eye replacing damaged retina
The core of the research relates to an eight-hour operation conducted in March on two men who suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive and currently incurable genetic eye condition which begins with night blindness, making it extremely difficult to see in low level lighting conditions, leading to gradual loss of peripheral vision and potentially eventual blindness.
The operation performed on the two men consisted of placing implants developed in Germany at the back of the patients eye behind the retina, containing a built in microchip holding 1,500 microscopic electronic light detectors to effectively replace the damaged cells in the retinas of the men, thereby essentially creating an electronic retina which performs the same way as it would in a working human eye.
How it works
Crucially, the optic nerve of the patients which transmits visual information for the brain to process reacted to the signals being created by the installed 3mm micro chip, bridging the gap previously corrupted by progressive deterioration of the retinas of the two men by creating a pixellated image after reacting to electrode stimulation of the surrounding nerves. Further equipment is required such as a power supply placed under the skin behind the ear, which then connects to the electronic retina for the circuit to be completed
Leading the ongoing research process is Professor Robert MacLaren, who claims the method is unique due to the full function of a working retina being artificially replaced into just the one chip, while the hearing aid device placed behind the ear is the only sign that a patient has the implant.
While they will never regain colour sight and their field of vision remains somewhat limited, James, who had been completely blind in his left eye for around ten years and limited lighting retention in his right eye, can now see lighting against a blackened background in both eyes, and has incredibly reported dreaming in colour for the first time in 25 years, whilst also recognising outlines of basic shapes such as a plate on a table. Millar also reported similar improvement to his sight.
Much like the Geordi LaForge character in Star Trek, who was given sight through a vision visor, the two men have stated that they are still getting used to the feedback provided by the ‘bionic eye’ microchip, alluding to the fact that this is only the beginning of their road to improved sight.
This is certainly a step in the right direction; although this particular procedure will only help improve sight for those with retinitis pigmentosa, further studies are to be carried out on ten patients in the hope that in the future many more forms of macular degeneration may be improved. So even if providing a comprehensive cure for blindness is some way off yet, there is no doubt the procedure is an example of great scientific ingenuity that could benefit the sight of many who otherwise cannot fully appreciate the world around them.
Jamie blogs for www.DirectSight.co.uk – one of the top providers of prescription glasses online.