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Blind Woman Sees the Light Thanks to Bionic Eye

A patient with no vision was recently outfitted with a bionic eye that restored some of her sight

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Dianne Ashworth has her eyes, both bionic and natural, tested. Image: David Mirabella, Bionic Vision Australia

Move over Terminator: the bionic eye is now real. Dianne Ashworth lost her vision due to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes vision loss and blindness. Ashworth had a bionic eye implanted about a month ago, and it was switched on recently.

In a statement, she says, “All of a sudden I could see a little flash … it was amazing.” Bionic Vision Australia, the group behind the implant, explains how the eye works:

This early prototype consists of a retinal implant with 24 electrodes. A small lead wire extends from the back of the eye to a connector behind the ear. An external system is connected to this unit in the laboratory, allowing researchers to stimulate the implant in a controlled manner in order to study the flashes of light. Feedback from Ms Ashworth will allow researchers to develop a vision processor so that images can be built using flashes of light. This early prototype does not incorporate an external camera – yet. This is planned for the next stage of development and testing.

Their chairman, David Penington, told The Australian:

“Much still needs to be done in using the current implant to ‘build’ images for Ms Ashworth. The next big step will be when we commence implants of the full devices,” Professor Penington said.

There are a lot of bionic eye designs out there. A Los Angeles–based group is already licensed to sell bionic eyes in the European Union. Their design, called the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis, works differently from the Australian design. Gizmag explains:

The Argus II captures video images using a miniature camera housed in the patient’s glasses and converts them into a series of small electrical pulses that are wirelessly transmitted to an array of electrodes on the surface of the retina. These pulses are designed to stimulate the retina’s remaining cells which send messages along the optic nerve to the brain. The brain is then able to perceive patterns of light and dark spots corresponding to which electrodes have been stimulated.

There are some key caveats to both of these implants. The Bionic Vision Australia group writes on their website:

To benefit from this technology, patients need to have a functional visual pathway from the retina to the brain along the optic nerve, as well as some intact retinal cells. As such, the two medical conditions that this technology aims to address are retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.

Even if it’s just for a few types of vision loss, a working bionic eye is pretty impressive. Ashworth, for one, is certainly sold. “Every time there was stimulation there was a different shape that appeared in front of my eye,” she said in the statement. That might not sound like much, but when you’ve been blind, something appearing in front of your eye is kind of a big deal.

More from Smithsonian.com:
The Rise of the Bionic Human
How to Become the Engineers of Our Own Evolution

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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