Welcome to the bionic future you’ve been waiting for. After decades of work, blind patients can now get a bionic eye implant that allows them to see again–with some caveats.
Retinitis pigmentosa is a particularly cruel disease. Patients start out with normal vision, and then at some point, when they’re kids or older adults, it starts to fade. After years of degeneration, some patients go blind.
The Argus II bionic eye (technical, less catchy name: the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System) is designed to bring a semblance of sight back to RP patients. In development for decades, the recently FDA-approved device consists of a pair of video camera-equipped glasses linked to a processor that converts the video signals into electrical impulses, which in turn mimic the body’s nerve conduction signals. These impulses are sent to the patient’s retina-attached Argus implant to create visual stimulation. The system takes advantage of a patient’s remaining functional retina to access the visual center of the brain.
The surgery takes just a few hours; patients only need a week to heal. So far, there haven’t been any major side effects.
“It’s not bringing back a super-level of visual acuity. I like to think of it more as visual sensation,” says Dr. James Handa, Professor of Ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. Johns Hopkins is one of about a dozen institutions across the country that’s offering the Argus II to patients.
For patients, the implant can be life-changing, albeit limited. Someone with the implant can walk at a more normal pace because they can see the shapes moving around them. They can see a door to walk through instead of feeling a wall to get to the door. Certain patients can sort light socks from dark socks.
Here’s the post-surgery reaction from a Johns Hopkins patient with Usher syndrome (he’s both blind and deaf).
Handa recalls another patient, an ex-engineer, with a passion for cars. Every day, he puts his Argus II glasses on, finds the newspaper for his wife, and ambles over to the sidewalk so he can count the cars going by. Over time, he’s learned to pick out whether a car is light-colored or dark colored. “[The device] creates a very depixelated view of the world. If you’re looking at a car going by, instead of seeing millions of pixels in a car, you’ll see 60 to 80 dots providing an outline,” says Handa. “It’s remarkable considering where the patient is coming from, not knowing whether a light is on or off.”
It’s possible that a future iteration of Argus II could promise even better visual acuity to patients, but limitations in computer chip technology are holding it back. If the chip technology improves, then future Argus implants could offer a higher resolution, pixel-rich image.
“I witnessed how it went from a pie in the sky idea to actual implementation. I’m really very impressed by it,” says Handa. “it’s easy to say that rudimentary vision doesn’t have an effect on people’s lives, but it does.”