Light fantastic: Retinal implant brightens future for blind

November 3, 2010

German doctors on Wednesday announced a breakthrough in retinal implants, the fledgling technology that aims to restore sight in people cursed by a form of inherited blindness.

Three patients fitted with the new device were able to see shapes and objects, and one was able to walk around a room by himself, approach people, read a clock face and distinguish between seven shades of grey.

The device "represents an unprecedented advance in electronic visual prostheses," the Royal Society, Britain's de-facto academy of sciences, said as one of its journals published the research.

"(It) could eventually revolutionise the lives of up to 200,000 people worldwide who suffer from blindness as a result of ."

Retinitis pigmentosa is a degenerative disease in which light receptors in the retina, on the back of the eyeball, gradually cease to function.

Over the past seven years, surgeons have pioneered electronic implants that are attached to the retina and are linked by wire to a small external camera that is mounted to a pair of spectacles.

The camera picks up light and and sends the image in the form of an electrical signal, via a processor unit, to the implant.

The implant then feeds the data to the optic nerve which leads from the eyeball to the brain.

The new device takes a step forward by capturing light that travels naturally through the eye's lens.

Correctly known as a sub-retinal implant, it entails a microchip comprising some 1,500 that are attached underneath the retina, thus replacing some of the lost receptors.

What the brain receives through the optic nerve is a tiny image comprising 38 pixels by 40 pixels -- points of light that are each brighter or dimmer according to the light that falls on the chip.

"Three previously blind persons could locate bright objects on a dark table, two of whom could discern grating patterns," according to the paper, published in the journal .

"One of these patients was able to correctly describe and name objects like a fork or knife on a table, geometric patterns, different fruits and discern dshades of grey with only 15 percent contrast.

"Without a training period, the regained visual functions enabled him to localise and approch persons in a room freely and to read large letters as complete words after several years of blindness."

The implant was developed by a German company, AG, alongside the Institute for Ophthalmic Research at the University of Tuebingen.

Lead researcher Eberhart Zrenner, a Tuebingen professor who co-founded Retinal Implant in 1996, said the pilot study was "proof-of-concept," meaning that it showed how visual functions could be restored to help blind people in everyday life.

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5 / 5 (1) Nov 03, 2010
This is truely amazing!
not rated yet Nov 03, 2010
Very cool!

I wonder how quickly this could be scaled up to much higher resolutions.
not rated yet Nov 03, 2010
this is NOT a novelty. As they said themselves, the only difference is that this one is all inside the eye, while the others, used an external camera and transfered the external camera image to the optical nerves.
not rated yet Nov 03, 2010
Very cool!

I wonder how quickly this could be scaled up to much higher resolutions.

If everything in our world is any indication, it will scale up very quickly:)
not rated yet Nov 04, 2010
I would rather have my lens on the gasses until they improved the image quality enough to risk having someone pock around inside my eye.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 04, 2010
Cochlear implants have been around for a very long time - FDA approved in 1984 for example. And while there has been much progress in the size of the devices, processing quality, link between the internal and external components, entirely internal prototypes and so on, the fundamentals have seen virtually no improvement.
Today they are still using the same absurdly low resolution of just 24 electrodes (or even 16 for one manufacturer). There are projects for "hi-def" versions, but even their 50 electrodes are disappointing.
The amount of people with implants seem also very low to me (subjective opinion) at under 200 000 in the whole world, considering the large period they've been available - but I guess that's expected when their quality is known to be so inadequate.
That doesn't leave me with much optimism for the speed of progress of visual implants.

We will need a breakthrough in nerve cell stimulation, such as using light instead of electricity, which is being researched too.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 04, 2010
I honestly am anxious for the time when brain-computer interface implants get so advanced, safe and common that even healthy people will be getting cochlear implants as "built-in" equivalent of blue-tooth headsets today, in order to be able to conveniently listen to music or a phone. Likewise for retinal implants instead of computer displays, and possibly for all the other senses too.

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