Flashes of Light Seen by Blind Woman Spur Bionic Eye Hope

Flashes of Light Seen by Blind Woman Spur Hope for Bionic Eye
An early bionic eye prototype drawing. Source: Bionics Institute via Bloomberg

An Australian woman blinded by an inherited retina-damaging disease experienced some vision after doctors in Melbourne implanted an electronic device they say may lead to a bionic eye by 2014.

Dianne Ashworth, who has profound vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa, received the world’s first implantation of an early prototype bionic eye, Bionic Vision Australia, the group undertaking the research, said in a statement today. The implant, attached to the back of Ashworth’s eye, was stimulated to produce images using a computer, the researchers said.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Ashworth said in the statement. “All of a sudden, I could see a little flash. It was amazing. Every time there was stimulation, there was a different shape that appeared in front of my eye.”

Understanding of the electrical stimulus required to produce images with the implant will enable researchers to develop a vision processor that creates images using flashes of light. The team is developing two prototypes within the next 12 to 18 months that will bring some vision to patients with retinitis pigmentosa initially, and then to sufferers of age-related macular degeneration.

About 1 in 3,000 babies born in Australia have retinitis pigmentosa, caused by an errant protein supplied to the retina that causes photoreceptor cells to die and a progressive loss of vision, according to Retina Australia.

Two Groups

Researchers are working with Ashworth to determine exactly what she sees each time the retina is stimulated. The team is looking for consistency of shapes, brightness, size and location of flashes to determine how the brain interprets the information, said Rob Shepherd, director of the Bionics Institute, which designed, built and tested the early prototype.

Bionic Vision Australia includes researchers from the Bionics Institute, Centre for Eye Research Australia, the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales,

The group is one of two that are developing bionic vision devices in Melbourne, where the cochlear ear implant was developed by Graeme Clark more than 30 years ago.

A team at Monash University in Melbourne aims to test a prototype in people within 18 months with a device that stimulates the brain directly to produce vision.

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