Yesterday, the Bionic Vision Australia (BVA) initiative unveiled one of those innovations that has the power to change the world considerably. The researchers, based at the University of New South Wales, in Australia, managed to produce a prototype bionic eye, a wide-view neurostimulator concept that is soon to be implanted in an Australian patient. As soon as larger-scale clinical trials conclude, the device will most likely go on the market, for general use.
The device was unveiled March 30 at the BVA consortium's official launch ceremony, held at the University of Melbourne. The instrument is primarily addressed to people who suffer from the adverse side-effects of retinitis pigmentosa (a common consequence of diabetes) and age-related macular degeneration. Both conditions result in losing eye sight, either partially or completely. Degenerative vision loss is among the leading causes of blindness worldwide, official statistics show.
“We anticipate that this retinal implant will provide users with increased mobility and independence, and that future versions of the implant will eventually allow recipients to recognize faces and read large print,” explains University of Melbourne professor of engineering Anthony Burkitt, who is also the research director at Bionic Vision Australia. He believes that the new system will indeed provide a life-changing experience to its users. The instrument is currently undergoing testing so as to validate it is safe for human use.
The prototype consists of a pair of glasses, which the user wears like any other goggles. On them, researchers mounted a video camera that collects images of the surroundings and then sends them to a device the user wears in his or her pockets. The instrument then codes the image and sends afferent signals to a miniature implant in the brain, using wireless connectivity. The small electrodes inside the brain stimulate the visual area of the cortex, which in turn produces dots of light in the brain's “field of view.” Researchers say that the cortex then interprets these impulses and eventually becomes accustomed to turning them into images.
“This is an exciting moment in our venture. The team's success is based on our world class multi-disciplinary approach which uses vision clinicians, retinal surgeons, neuroscientists, biomedical and electrical engineers from across the nation,” adds professor emeritus David Penington AC, who is the chairman of BVA. He says that the ambitious bionic eye project will be heavily investigated in the coming years so that researchers can produce viable devices within five years tops.