In many ways it sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, regardless, researchers in the United States are able to help restore vision in blind patients by implanting a tiny microchip in their eye.
The California-based company Second Sight Medical Products implanted their first visual prosthesis in 2002, and since then they’ve continued their research and underwent important clinical trials. The company’s hard work paid off in early 2013 when they received FDA approval for their bionic eye, known as the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System.
The device is helpful for patients with a rare genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa. The disorder slowly damages the light-sensitive cells that line the retina inside the eye and can eventually lead to blindness. The Canadian health charity The Foundation Fighting Blindness estimates that 1 in 3500 Canadians suffer from the disease, in the US the number is closer to 1 in 4000.
The Argus II has three main components: a video camera attached to eyeglasses; a portable computer worn on a belt; and a chip implanted near the retina. The video camera sends image data to the computer which is then converted into electrical signals that are sent to the chip implanted in the retina. The signals are then sent to electrodes which stimulate the retinal cells. The electrodes essentially replace the light-sensing cells that have degenerated.
While the device doesn’t fully restore vision, its results are still pretty incredible. Patients involved in the clinical trial, which began in 2007, were able to perform basic activities better with the Argus II. Participants were able to make out large letters, words and sentences; detect street curbs; walk on a sidewalk without stepping off; and match black, grey and white socks.
These clinical results are impressive, but they come at a price. The company has not announced how much the device will sell for in the U.S., but units in Europe retail for $100,000, with the expectation that they’ll last 10 years.