With nearly 40 million people worldwide suffering from blindness, and another 124 million affected by impaired vision, researchers are intent on developing novel ways to restore sight. One such example is the development of a so-called bionic eye or bionic eye implant, such as the Orion I system designed by Second Sight.
A 30 year old woman in Los Angeles, who has been blind for seven years, was recently involved in a trial of the Orion I system, which allowed her to “see” shapes and colours for the first time since going blind. The system works by placing an implant in the visual cortex, which is the section of the brain that receives images from the optic nerve and scientists then send signals to that implant. During the six weeks of testing, the patient consistently reported “seeing” the exact signals and images that the scientists transmitted to the implant.
Similar bionic eye trials have previously taken place at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital. During those trials, scientists were able to show that devices, known as the Argus II, placed on the back of the retina could send signals to allow people to see lines and shapes in the world around them. However, those systems could only be used on people whose optic nerves are still intact. Any patients who have had their eye removed will have also had the optic nerve removed, and so the Argus II implants would not work for them.
It is still very early days for Orion I, but researchers say that the next step is to connect the implant to a camera installed in a pair of glasses, which could then communicate with the implant to provide an electronic eye. Bypassing the eye is intended to be a solution to restore “sight” for anyone who is blind or visually impaired, and even those who have lost their eyes entirely. Researchers hope that by connecting the Orion I to a camera, moving images will be sent directly to the implant and “retrain” the brain to recognise visual stimuli. This step has not yet been performed but the researchers and developers involved in Orion I say they are “cautiously pleased” with the progress so far.
Chairman of Second Sight, Dr Robert Greenberg, said: “It is rare that technological developments offer such stirring possibilities. The Orion I has the potential to restore useful vision to patients completely blinded due to virtually any reason, including glaucoma, cancer, diabetic retinopathy, or trauma.” He described the recent progress made as an “exciting and important milestone”.
Arran Macleod, a solicitor in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches, said: “This is exciting news. In the UK alone more than two million people are visually impaired or blind, with no hope of a cure. We often act for visually impaired or blind patients and see first-hand the physical and emotional difficulties those patients then encounter in their day-to-day activities. Although it is not expected that the so-called bionic eye will produce normal sight, the development of a system that may restore some sense of vision has the potential to be life-changing. We hope the development of this system continues to progress so that it may become a real solution in the future for anyone whose sight has been affected.”