The CERA team working on the bionic eye project (from left to right): Elizabeth Baglin, Dr Carla Abbott, Associate Professor Penny Allen, Associate Professor Chi Luu and Maria Kolic. Photo by Anna Carlile.
A new bionic eye prototype has restored a sense of vision in four blind people who are using the device in their everyday lives.
The four patients, aged 42 to 65, are part of a clinical trial funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and commercial partner Bionic Vision Technologies. All have a degenerative genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa.
This progressive, presently untreatable condition, is one of the most common causes of blindness in working-age people in the developed world, and it has life-changing consequences.
“People lose their ability to work because of their vision,” says CERA Principal Investigator Associate Professor Penny Allen.
The bionic eye prototype is permanent, portable and stable, improving on the useability, size and function of an earlier 2012 version. Now being tested outside the laboratory, it is getting very close to clinical translation, says Associate Professor Allen.
Before using the device at home, the four patients undertook several months of training in the lab to learn how to interpret the visual information provided by the bionic eye and to have the software fine-tuned.
“Our hypothesis was that if the patients used the device more, and in particular at home, they would get more benefit from it,” says Associate Professor Allen.
Each patient has their own wish list of what they would like to achieve, such as visiting the neighbours or the local shopping centre, or sorting washing, and they are making tangible progress.
“These are essentially independence and navigational tasks,” says Associate Professor Allen, “and they are going well.”
Importantly, the surgery to implant the device is an uncomplicated procedure, with an electrode array inserted into a small pocket between the wall of the eye and the retina.
“We designed the surgery to be straightforward, because the more straightforward it is, the less risky it is,” says Associate Professor Allen.
This is extraordinary science, but it is only possible because of the bravery and altruism of the patients who participate in trials, says Associate Professor Allen.
“They are all very inspiring.”
How the bionic eye works
The bionic eye mimics the function of the retina. It works by taking images from a tiny camera on the person’s glasses and converting them into electrical signals that travel to electrodes in the eye.
Electrical impulses stimulate residual cells in the retina that connect to the optic nerve to create ‘visual information’ that the brain interprets as an image.
This provides ‘a sense of sight’ for a person to discern shapes, movement, faces, shade or light and to navigate the everyday world.