Print Edition: February 20, 2013
What if the future we see in movies and on TV soon becomes our reality?
We live in a world where there are exciting discoveries and inventions in the field of science every week. From modern touch screen/voice command interfaces on modern phones and gadgets to NASA speculating about developing a “warp drive” for space travel, we are living in an age full of possibilities for the future. Our technological innovations stretch all the way to landing a rover on Mars and putting a man on the moon.
On top of that we’ve developed aesthetically-pleasing mechanical body parts that we can control with our minds.
A particularly amazing invention entered the scene earlier this month, when Second Sight Medical Products released the world’s first bionic eye to be available on the market.
The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System benefits people with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disease that deteriorates vision in the retinal photoreceptors, which is the part of the eye responsible for seeing colour and light. Retinitis pigmentosa is usually diagnosed in childhood and affects vision more over time. Among other vision impairments, affected individuals can experience tunnel vision or night blindness; later in life these symptoms develop into blindness.
Basically, the Argus II electrically stimulates the retina through about 60 electrodes implanted in the retina, and also requires glasses fitted with a special mini camera. The signals generated by the device actually take over the role of the photoreceptors in our eye, converting the light entering the eye into electrochemical impulses. The impulses are sent from the optic nerve to the brain where we process the information our eye sees.
The Argus II is the first treatment of its kind to be released in Europe and the United States. It won approval of European regulators last year based on safety and long-term performance, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deemed the Argus II’s medical benefits outweighed risks to health.
With preliminary testing in rats and the first clinical trials in human participants, patients could only see black and white images because the device only activated the eye’s light receptors (rods) and did not stimulate the colour sensitive receptors (cones). However, Brian Mech, vice-president of business development of Second Sight Medical Products, says that with further research and trials they were able to produce colour vision as well. In a clinical trial of 30 blind people aged 28 to 77, Mech said in an interview with Agence France-Presse that there were “some patients who got just a little bit of benefit and others who could do amazing things like reading newspaper headlines.” The outcome varied by participant; most patients only saw black and white while others were able to see distinct detail and colour.
The popularity of this artificial “eye” has encouraged a team of researchers lead by John Wyatt at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to try developing a bionic eye of their own that will offer higher resolution images. The team is currently working on a system that will upgrade from 60 electrodes to 400 electrodes implanted in the retina.
Another approach to vision correction was proposed by Daniel Palanker of Stanford University, California. His approach involves implanting tiny photovoltaic cells into the retina instead of electrodes. This would provide an even better image resolution.
Not only would this system help people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, but it could also help common age-related degeneration of the macula, the spot of the retina that provides us with clearest detail and best colour perception. So far, the photovoltaic system has been successfully tested on rats and they hope to start clinical trials in a year.
Even if Superman-quality vision is not quite an option yet, we are already reshaping the future of vision technology. The Argus II is only one step in bionic eye evolution.