Bionic Eyes: Hopes for retinal disease patients to see again

Argus Retinal Prosthesis System patient
Argus Retinal Prosthesis System patient

TORONTO — A new implant is helping a number of people that has lost their ability to see due to degenerative retinal disease make more sense out of light and dark images. This may one day improve substantially the ability of people with degenerative retinal disease to regain vision.

First two patients as part of a 10-person clinical study had received the implant of the Argus Retinal Prosthesis System; it was done by doctors at Toronto Western Hospital. Such operations were the first to be performed in Canada.

When 76-year-old Ian Nichols’ grandchildren were born over the last 20 years, he loved carrying them in his arms. Unfortunately, a vision deterioration prevented him from watching them as they grew. However, today, the misery has moved away from his life. Nichols is one of a couple patients to have the chance to undertake the bionic eye surgery at Toronto Western Hospital.

Nichols has been living in flawed vision for 20 years since developing retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition. The surgery took three hours. His eye was cut open and a microchip was inserted with 20 tiny stitches needed to close the incision.

The implant uses a tiny patch containing 60 electrodes that delivers image impulses to the retinal nerves. Then, the impulses travel through the main optic nerve to later be processed by the brain. The images are sent through a minuscule video camera on the bridge of a special pair of glasses; it is wired to a small computer modulator, which is worn outside the body. The device bypasses one of the layers of the eye where the rods and cones would, at normal condition, generates sight impulses. Patients with retinitis pigments and other degenerative retinal diseases, the rods and cones are not there to perform well.

Even though people with this implant are not going to be able to recognize faces again, they are now able to see the image of a person and reckon if one is wearing a dark-coloured or light-coloured shirt. They cannot tell directions, but they can now see movements and forms of people. They are also able to make out doorways, reach for objects and sense the shadows.

People who receive the implants have to undergo rehabilitation. The rehab is meant to retrain their brains to decipher the images received through the implant. The development of this device still has a long way to go; it is still far from perfection.

Besides the miraculous hope that this so-called bionic eye can give, it is not cheap to give it to a patient. The implant alone runs $144,000 (US) and there are the costs of the fairly complicated surgery and the visual rehabilitation.

The Argus Retinal Prosthesis System implant is developed by California-based company Second Sight. It is currently not yet approved for nation-wide use in Canada, although approval has been given by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is expected that Health Canada will ratify the  use of the device in the near future. The Toronto Western team has an intention to approach the Ontario government about funding the surgery.

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