New developments in the bionic eye give hope to some people who are blind. The Monash Vision Group (MVG) is a group of engineers, scientists, technicians and medical researchers who are working together to help people with optic nerve damage regain some vision. This news is very exciting to me as my own blindness was caused by optic nerve damage.
How it works
According to MVG Director Professor Arthur Lowery, the bionic eye is relatively discreet and unobtrusive. A tiny camera built into a pair of glasses acts as a retina. A pocket processor or computer, about the size of a mobile phone, converts information from the camera into electronic signals for the brain. These signals are directed to a microchip grid of up to 14 eight-by-eight millimetre tiles placed on the visual cortex, which is at the back of the brain.
Professor Lowery believes it's inevitable the tiles will cause some minor neuron damage.
It's impossible to clear a path through the cells, however the brain is very resilient, he says. Despite this small amount of damage, the microchip should stimulate the visual cortex and enable patients to regain some sense of vision.
The bionic eye image is comprised of 600 electrodes as thin as a human hair. The technology required is far more complex than that used for the bionic ear, which requires approximately 20 electrodes.
The computer extracts useful information from a real scene, Professor Lowery explains. Using different modes, patients will receive enough information to be able to identify aspects of their environment such as the floor space in their workplace, a train station or perhaps even people's faces.
The brain is very good at interpreting small amounts of information, especially for moving scenes, says Professor Lowery.
Professor Lowery proposes once the microchips have been implanted the MVG will work closely with patients to ensure
they make the best use of the signals they receive from the bionic eye. This may take weeks or even months, but gradually the brain should adapt.
Initially the device is expected to work in conjunction with the person using aids such as a seeing-eye dog or a white cane. Over time however the bionic eye should replace these aids. Professor Lowery hopes the technology will be refined to eventually enable the reading of large print.
Suitability and testing
Unfortunately the bionic eye is not expected to work for people who were born blind. Professor Lowery explains the brain of a person who has never had sight may not be wired in a way to enable them to interpret the signals received from this device. As I went blind at the age of six, it is possible I may be able to benefit from the bionic eye technology.
The MVG should be ready to test its first patient in 2014. While this device will not fully restore sight to people who are blind Professor Lowery is hopeful
there will be useful improvement.
If you have experienced vision loss and believe the MVG bionic eye device may help you then you are welcome to register interest in the program.