Bionic Vision Australia asked Dianne Ashworth if she wanted to take part in a new bionic eye prototype being developed. She didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t so much about getting her vision back, it was taking part in this new and exciting research that interested her.
To know that you are contributing to an amazing technical advancement is really something to be proud of, she says.
What is a bionic eye?
A bionic eye aims to give people who are blind some vision. A microchip is implanted in the brain of a person who has a vision impairment. A tiny camera in a pair of glasses worn by the person sends high-frequency radio signals to the microchip. The microchip converts the radio signals into electrical impulses to stimulate the retina. These electrical impulses then travel down along the optic nerve to the vision processing centres of the brain. The brain interprets these impulses as an image.
At this stage, the technology trials and research can only help people whose vision loss was caused by retinitis pigmentosa (RP) or age-related macular degeneration.To be a candidate for the bionic-eye implants, a person needs to have advanced RP with little or no eyesight.
Life with vision loss
Dianne’s vision loss was caused by RP. Prior to her diagnosis, her vision was deteriorating but she never thought she had an eyesight problem.
When I was pregnant with my first son my vision deteriorated quite rapidly. And again with my second son. Within ten years I had lost most of my sight.
I used to be very much afraid of not having any vision, but I have coped very well.
Dianne was comfortable with taking part in the trials because the implanted microchip wouldn't directly be in contact with the vital workings of the eye.
The fact that there was no risk to either the retina or the brain made me feel easier about my involvement. I also felt very comfortable with the researchers consequently making me feel it was the right thing for me to do, says Dianne.
Commitment to research
Involvement in the Bionic Eye trials is a commitment that isn’t always stress-free. It takes four hours of surgery to implant the electrodes and the microchip.
I had previously weighed up that the possibilities were worth the risks. I was aware there would be pain, but it was the stitches in the eye that annoyed me most. The medication I was given helped. And apart from the usual post–operative tiredness, I recovered well.
After recovery from the surgery, Dianne was hooked up to the computer for the first trials of this bionic prototype.
I was as calm as a cucumber, she says.
I walked into this whole experiment not knowing what to expect. Pardon the pun but I went in with my eyes wide open, going with the flow and just happy to see what happens.
So here I am, finally hooked up to the computer for the first time, and I think I see a flash. And then I see it again. They told me what I saw is what they were sending. It was just so exciting.
Once a week, Dianne is connected to the computer. The stimulation allows her to see more and more flashes and pixelated outlines.
Fleur O’Hare is a bionic eye clinical research officer from the Centre of Eye Research Australia. She says there are many professional fields involved in creating the bionic eye.
Research in this area involves the expertise of many different fields including vision sciences, biomedical engineering, psychology, material sciences and surgery. As a result, research in this area is very involved and takes years to undertake.
Despite this, it is anticipated that the next generation retinal implants may be available to begin clinical trials within the next five years, she says.
Dianne is excited about the outcomes. Not only for those with RP, but also other eye diseases that could be incorporated in the future.
Who knows where this might end, she says. And with a broad smile she adds,
and to think I was there in the beginning.
Bionic Vision Australia www.bionicvision.org.au
Centre of Eye Research Australia www.cera.org.au