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Bionic Eye Implants Offer Hope for the Blind

By Jim Bray
April 2, 2007

Talk about a sight for sore eyes, let alone a concept from science fiction once again turning into science fact!

It's bionic eye implants, one hope for a better future for the visually handicapped.

Remember Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers, the bionic man and woman of 1970's TV? They were "ordinary" human beings who had suffered heavy injuries but who, enhanced by technology, became superhuman government agents who fought a variety of evils.

Bionic people such as Steve and Jaime don't exist yet, at least not outside of Area 51 perhaps, but bit by bit, new technological advances are offering hope to people who could use a hand or, in this case, an eye.

According to the BBC, researchers at the University of  Southern California have developed a bionic eye implant that within the next few years could help give sight to millions of blind people. 

It's actually more than an implant, however: it's a procedure (called Argus II) that combines internal and external gadgetry including a little camera mounted on a set of eyeglasses that feeds image signals to electrodes implanted right in the patient's retina. The real time images from the camera are converted into tiny electrical pulses that apparently jump start the blind eye and start it working again, at least partially.

It isn't quite as simple as it sounds, of course. For instance, the images don't skip magically from the camera to the retina. Instead, they're routed to a hand-held or, I imagine, a pocket-stored, device, where they're processed and sent back to the glasses again, then transmitted wirelessly to a receiver beneath the surface of the eye – and finally to the actual retinal implants and the patient's brain. It may sound a little Rube Goldberg-like, and I suppose it is, but this is an early generation of a new technology and it will undoubtedly get smaller and more efficient as time goes on. Such is the way of technology.

According to the BBC report, the researchers have already had some success. In 2004, the first experimental implants were fitted to a California man who went blind in 1993 from retinitis pigmentosa. And though the result was pretty low resolution, the implants allow him to avoid low hanging branches and to make out some shapes. He can't identify faces, but he can see them as dark shadows.  

The technique doesn't return full vision yet, but it's a heckuva first step.

Those early experiments only used 16 implants; since then scientists have upped the resolution to include 60 implants while also reducing their size so they can require less of a surgical impact.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has now authorized tests to be conducted on some 50 to 75 human guinea pigs and, if this round is successful, the technology could be available commercially within a couple of years, probably costing in the area of $30,000 U.S.

It's exciting stuff, indeed. Anyone who has seen Star Trek: The Next Generation will appreciate where eye implants could go. LeVar Burton's Geordie LaForge started the series as a blind Starfleet officer who wore a visor that let him see a variety of bandwidths; later, his big screen character dumped the visor for higher-technology eyes.

Add to the mix improved cochlear implants that let the deaf hear, new generations of prosthetics that will undoubtedly rival or maybe even improve upon the original equipment, and artificial or cloned organs to replace those diseased or worn out and we may well be on the way to creating generations of Steve Austins and Jaime Sommers.

Or maybe just a group of formerly handicapped people who can partake of life in much the same way as the rest of humanity.

Ain't technology grand?


Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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