Prosthetics have existed for hundreds of years. All of us are familiar with the stereotypical image of a pirate: a one-eyed bandit with a wooden leg, a hook instead of a hand, and a black patch across one eye. Nowadays, hooks and wooden legs may seem primitive, since much more advanced prostheses have appeared on the market: artificial limbs that can be connected directly to a person’s neural system are gradually becoming mundane reality; such prostheses allow users to directly control artificial limb movements, as if they were their own “original” arms or legs. This is not to mention artificial hearts, kidneys, and even bones. Simultaneously, for a long time, there was an organ the functions of which could not be recreated with the help of even the most advanced technologies: the human eye. The human eye is an incredibly complex biological lens, a window through which our brain perceives the world and gathers up to 90% of the information about it—so there is no surprise that scientists all over the world have tried to create fully functional eye prostheses—and recently their efforts finally started to bear fruit.
In 2016, the British National Health Service (NHS) announced that it was ready to pay for 10 people to become pioneers in the matter of testing the brand new technology of the “bionic eye”; these people (who had lost sight due to various circumstances) needed to undergo retina surgeries in order to be implanted with special devices—Argus II retinal implants, manufactured by Second Sight Medical Products in California, USA—enabling patients to distinguish light from dark, and recognize movement. Perhaps not as awe-inspiring as many would have probably expected, this technology is still a huge step towards creating an artificial analogue of an eye. So far, Argus II technology consists of retina implants, eye-gear, and a portable computer. Eyeglasses record the scenes around a user, sending imagery to a computer worn on a belt; the computer then processes these images, and wirelessly sends them to the electrode array implanted into a patient’s eye. This array then starts emitting short electric impulses, which bypass damaged retina fragments and reach the remaining cells capable of transmitting signals further to the brain. The brain then interprets received electric impulses, allowing a patient to “see” the world around them (The Guardian).
We are not talking about high-resolution color vision here; being far from emulating a real eye’s vision capabilities, Argus II still gives hope to many people who have lost their sight, allowing them to return to a normal life. Not being a panacea for all eye diseases (Argus II was developed to help people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa—a crippling disease causing people to completely lose sight in a matter of several years), the technology allows its users to see low-resolution flickering black and white dots; these dots let people see walls, lights, and even facial outlines. One of the happy implant users, Fran Fulton, who was implanted with the technology in 2014 after 15 years of blindness, says: “When I turned on the glasses, it was an “Oh my God’ moment. I was able to spot things on the wall and see people come in the room. I was able to walk right through the doorframe. It’s hard to tell a garbage can from someone sitting on the sidewalk, but I can go around it. I can now make decisions and maintain my independence” (The Optical Society of America). The technology is prospective and will probably develop, so that in a decade or so, it would be capable of reproducing imagery of a much higher quality than today. Besides, so far it is the only bionic eye technology approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, which means that it is available for purchase in this country (MIT Technology Review).
In fact, research in this direction has already been conducted for several years. In 2013, a German company, Retina Implant AG, was granted with a CE mark for its bionic eye technology called Alpha IMS. Having been developed for retinitis pigmentosa sufferers as well, Alpha IMS seems to be a more advanced and mobile alternative for Argus II. Unlike the latter, Alpha IMS is a tiny microchip (only 3 square millimeters in diameter) implanted under damaged retina. The results of the implant’s clinical tests have been announced in 2017; they show that people using the implant have became more autonomous, and the quality of their daily life has improved. Alpha IMS allows users to track objects around them due to normal eye movements, without having to mount special eye gear, as in the case of Argus II. The implant also provides clearer vision, due to operating with the resolution capability of 1,500 microphotodiode-amplifier pixels. Retina IMplant AG currently develops an even more advanced version of the implant—it is called Alpha AMS, and its resolution capability reaches 1600 pixels. Tests will be conducted until the end of 2017 (The Optical Society of America).
Modern eye prosthetics is far from the level demonstrated by various science-fiction films, such as the recent “Ghost in the Shell.” The first commercial eye implant, Argus II, provides its users with only low-resolution black-and-white images constructed from dots; however, this is already enough to greatly increase the quality of life of these people, who had spent decades without seeing at all. Another prospective eye implant—Alpha IMS—provides higher resolution, but its tests still continue, and it is not yet available for purchase. Anyways, it seems that scientists have finally found the way to successfully emulate functions of one of the most complex organs in the human body—and hopefully, they will succeed with introducing even more capabilities.
Boseley, Sarah. “Blind NHS Patients to Be Fitted with Pioneering Bionic Eye.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Dec. 2016. Web. 20 July 2017.
Bourzac, Katherine. “Second Sight’s Bionic Eye Implant Approved in the United States.” MIT Technology Review. MIT Technology Review, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 20 July 2017.
Coffey, Valerie C. “Vision Accomplished: The Bionic Eye.” Optics & Photonics News (OPN). N.p., n.d. Web. 20 July 2017.
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