February 16, 2007

Keep An Eye Out For This

Scientists have made the first practical eye prosthetic that restores vision, the London Telegraph reports. Six patients have been able to distinguish light patterns and even recognize shapes after the implant of the Argus II system:

A bionic eye that can restore sight to the blind could be on the market within two years, according to scientists.

The first six patients to try the revolutionary devices have learnt how to detect light, distinguish between objects and perceive direction of motion.

American scientists were this week given approval to test a more advanced version of the electronic retinal implant on up to 75 subjects.

The breakthrough offers new hope to millions of people around the world who have lost their vision to degenerative eye diseases, particularly those with macular degeneration - the most common cause of blindness in western countries. Up to 15pc of over-75s are affected by the condition.

It will also help those with retinitis pigmentosa, a group of incurable inherited eye diseases that cause the degeneration of the photoreceptor cells whose job it is capture and process light. The device takes the place of the photoreceptors.

The system combines an implant in the brain and another in the eye with glasses that contain an embedded camera to produce a display of light dots that form shapes. Researchers hope to improve the resolution within seven years to make it possible for patients to recognize faces. Presumably, the technology wll follow the same trajectory as computer displays and cameras, with miniaturization allowing for higher-quality displays.

At the moment, the Argus II is limited to those who have functional optic nerves. The science may eventually move past that, which would allow the long-term blind and those who have had their eyes removed to see again. The First Mate had one of her eyes removed and a vitrctomy in the other eye 27 years ago, so this system would probably not work for her. It's encouraging, though, that scientists have come this far, and with more perseverance, they will make even greater leaps soon.

FIRST MATE ADDS: This sounds like it might be great for other people. When I was losing my sight, though, the shadows and shapes that I still could make out were maddening. My brain kept wanting to see more, and it was very frustrating to experience that. Once I completely lost my sight, I learned to visualize based on input from my other senses, and returning to that transition state does not appeal to me.


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