Australian scientists announce the successful implantation of the first bionic eye in a human patient, named Dianne Ashworth. She received the advanced device because a degenerative condition called retinitis pigmentosa took away her eyesight.
The disease affects a small percentage of the population, about 1 in 3,000 babies in Australia alone. It appears when a defect causes a certain protein to make its way to the retina, destroying light-sensitive cells, and leading to progressive sight loss.
Ashworth had suffered profound vision loss before the implantation procedure. The electronic device she now carries allows her to see bright flashes of light, the team behind the instrument explains.
By 2014, the same group adds, a better version of the bionic eye should be made available for patients who went blind because of retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration brought on by age.
The early prototype bionic eye was produced by Bionic Vision Australia, and is currently just a test model. Researchers at the company are working closely with Ashworth, obtaining valuable feedback on how their implant is performing, and what needs improving.
The instrument is attached to the back of her eye, where it produces electrical pulses that travel along the ocular nerve. Within 2 years or so, the device could be made into a working bionic eye, capable of restoring at least some vision to blind individuals.
“I didn’t know what to expect. All of a sudden, I could see a little flash. It was amazing. Every time there was stimulation, there was a different shape that appeared in front of my eye,” Ashworth said in a recent statement, as quoted by Bloomberg
The company that manufactured the prototype includes investigators from the Bionics Institute, the Center for Eye Research Australia, the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales, all in Australia.
The team now plans to produce even more advanced implants, and to have them tested in willing subjects within 18 months or so. If successful, then millions of blind people around the world could finally regain at least some of their sight.
While they will never be able to see as good as they did, the quality of their lives will improve considerably.