Curing Blindness With Bionic Eyes

Two Part Series
Part One – An Awesome Now (This Article)
Part Two – An Awesome Future

And the blind shall see. In case you missed it (I had until recently), we appear to be at the tipping point for curing several prevalent forms of blindness. With a pair of glasses, a chip implanted inside the blind eye(s), and a little bit of wiring, several blind patients are now seeing shapes and outlines in black and white…even if they saw only blackness the day before.

We’re already turning blind people into cyborgs with bionic eyes…

The Technology

There are a number of proven approaches being tested and implemented, including variations in where the chip is implanted, how the visual information is transferred, and how the digital information is translated into something our brains can understand. But at a core level, they all appear to use a relatively similar and blissfully simple concept.

Bionic Eye

First, create a device to capture images in realtime, in order to prevent delays that would throw off sensory input (otherwise the patient would hear things out of sync with when they see them). In most modern technology this comes from an external device like a pair of glasses with sensors built in, although there are some companies working with methods that allow the sensors to be implanted on the retina itself.

Second, process and send the digital signals captured by the device and convert them into signals that can be interpreted by the optic nerve and then ultimately the brain. For methods that use glasses, the chip is located in the glasses and then sends the data a retinal implant wirelessly. Methods that use on-retina implants process and send the signal locally.

Third, the implanted device takes the processed signal and uses it to stimulate cells on the retina. Our natural systems pick up from there, as the stimulated cells send their signal back the optic nerve and to our brain to interpret the communication as sight.

To me this seems crazy. You can’t cure blindness, can you? This can’t be a real thing…

How You Know It’s A Real Thing

Like it or not, the key sign that this is going to be widely implemented all ties back to money. If the concept was based on overhyped medical advances whose time hasn’t yet come, you might have one or maybe two companies or research teams pushing for clinical trials and commercialized products.

In this case, there seem to be new teams showing up on the scene at a consistent rate. Second Sight in the UK has been at it awhile, and has already completed their first commercial eye implant. Another is set for clinical trials as early as next year, with an on-eye device that is powered by a laser beam shot into your eye. I’m not creative enough to make this stuff up. There’s also the aptly named german company Retina Implant AG that is currently in the human trial stage. Or the Boston Retinal Implant Project where two companies have joined forces in delivering both the device assisted and direct retinal implant versions of the technology. Or the Australian Bionic Vision slotted for 2013 human testing. Or Monash University who is trying to cut the middleman altogether by implanting a chip on your brain to interpret signals from glasses, aiming for human trials by 2014.

That’s 6 independent groups scraped together from a relatively quick google search. Either everyone is drinking the cool-aid, or we’ve got the genuine thing coming at us in the very near future. Not only are people going to have the option to get the procedure done, they’re actually going to have to do some shopping around for the best deals and best quality service. For curing them of blindness. Man what a crazy world we’re living in.

So What?

Alright…I’m hoping no one is actually thinking that. Even though many of the products ready for market or coming soon have notably lower resolutions than the normal eye, we’re talking about a person whose world was dark suddenly being able to see the world around them. A cane, seeing eye dog, or other assistance may still be needed in the short term when navigating streets or crowded public places, but people would be able to navigate the home without a walking stick, and do a number of things that they were unable to do previously thanks to this breakthrough.

For a man who received an early experimental test in the US, it meant being able to see his daughter’s hand. She was a young child when he lost his sight. It means having that extra sense for connecting with the world around him, and connecting with people without the limitations associated with blindness. This whole topic excites the hell out of me; it means people will be regaining something lost to them that they likely never thought they would have again.

All that hopeful optimism aside, if the technology advances at the rate most technology appears to be advancing, it’s going to bring up some pretty intense questions…more on that in part 2

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