Science Scope

Bionic eye can help blind see again

Posting in Science

The device helps a blind grandfather see his grandson for the first time. The race is on to develop the ultimate bionic eye.

Elias Konstantopoulus is wearing a device that allows him to see.

Without it, he is blind. With it, he can see his grandson. Sort of. The visually-impaired grandfather can only see flashes of light. One day though, the bionic eye might improve to the point that the patient can see the noses, the pimples and the other imperfections on people's faces. It is hard to get visual images to send electrical signals to the brain after the retina loses its function, but this bionic eye gets us closer to helping blind people see again.

How is this possible? A microchip implanted in his eye allows Konstantopoulus to see visual signals that are transmitted through the optic nerve to the brain.

Recently, Second Sight announced that this very device called Argus II, a bionic eye tool, has been approved for the European market, according to an Agence France Presse report.

The device is used to treat people who are suffering from retinosa pigmentosa, a condition that causes blindness. It's the same condition that affects Konstantopoulos. He's not alone. One in 3,000 people in the United States suffer from it as well, AFP reporter Kerry Sheridan writes.

The latest version of the device allows him to see the difference between light and dark.

Just as cochlear implants have given hundreds of thousands of deaf people the ability to hear again, the bionic eye can help people regain their vision.

An ophthalmologist says the device allows us to "talk" to the retina: literally, as signals are transmitted to the optic nerve and brain.

It works like this. A video camera takes the images and turns them into useful electrical signals that the microchip can pick up. The science behind this is called neuromodulation - a relatively new field that is developing technology that let's the blind see again and the deaf hear again.

Another bionic eye is making waves in Australia, according to Wired blogger Priya Ganapati. The company, called Bionic Vision Australia, has a similar device that can send electrical impulses to neurons in the retina. The prototype is unique because of number of electrodes used and the way the information is delivered, Wired reports. The first human implant is slated for 2013.

An external camera is hooked up to the glasses, so the implanted array of electrodes deliver electrical impulses to the retina. The communication is all done through wireless connections.

The race for the ultimate bionic eye is on. Researchers in places as far flung as Australia, the United States and Germany are working on similar devices.

Sending electrical stimulation to the retina seems like it's a good idea. And so far, it appears to be a promising way to restore vision.

But when will the bionic eye be available to the public? Bionic Vision hopes to deliver the implant system by 2020.

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP

Illustration via Wired

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure