In the fictional universe of Star Trek exists a device called a VISOR. It’s a thin apparatus worn like a pair of sunglasses by the blind to artificially provide them with a sense of vision. VISORs can detect electromagnetic signals and transmit them to a user’s brain through neural implants in their temples. However, instead of seeing the world as human eyes do, someone wearing a VISOR is able to see infrared and ultraviolet light and beyond. When the fictional technology of the VISOR was conceived, it was far from becoming a reality, but today, a device very similar to this is already being used by blind patients.
California-based company Second Sight has developed a retinal implant called the Argus II that can restore limited vision to patients affected by retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, and possibly to those with macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in those aged 60 and over. One 55-year-old man who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, Roger Pontz, is 1 of 4 people in the US to receive an artificial retina since the FDA approved the technology’s use last year, and is already benefiting. Pontz has been blind for years, but thanks to the Argus II, he has regained enough of his eyesight to make out his wife, grandson, and cat.
The implant works with a wearable visual processing unit that sends images to a tiny electrode array implanted in the user’s retina. Electrical stimulation then sends visual information up the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the brain, allowing the user to see. Whereas the implant doesn’t come close to restoring 20/20 vision, it works well enough so that someone who is blind can distinguish the shape of objects or when someone is walking past them.
“It’s been pretty awesome,” Pontz said. “I can tell when my grandson runs around the house, I can tell when people step in front of me, I can tell when my wife had on a white top versus dark bottoms, vice versa. I could follow my mom around on Easter; she had a light top on. Every day it’s something small but something different.”
After years of not processing visual information, Pontz’s eyes had to learn how to see again. Every week, Pontz and his wife travel to Ann Arbor for rehab. “You have to go through the process, kind of like learning a new language,” says Kari Branham, genetic counselor at Kellogg Eye Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where the surgery took place. “You have to retrain your brain to see and understand those images that it’s seeing.”
However, not all people with retinitis pigmentosa can benefit from the Argus II. About 100,000 people in the US suffer from the condition, but only an estimated 10,000 will have vision that is poor enough. Of those, about 7500 will be eligible for the surgery.
The procedure has been performed several dozen times over the past few years in Europe, with the expectation that the US will see similar success. Candidates for the Argus II must be at least 25 years of age and have end-stage retinitis pigmentosa in both eyes.
“I told my wife for years, ‘I don’t know when, what, or how, but I will see again,’” said Pontz. “You got to believe in yourself—I always have. Someday, yes, I will see again. I didn’t know how, where, when, but it’s happening now.”
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- How is Argus II designed to produce sight? Second Sight website. http://www.2-sight.com/how-is-argus-r-ii-designed-to-produce-sight-en.
- Michigan man among first in US to receive “bionic eye.” Fox News website. April 23, 2014. http://www.foxnews.com/health/2014/04/23/michigan-man-among-first-in-us-to-receive-bionic-eye.
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