Artificial Retina Allows Some Blind Patients to See Text, Shapes
Developed by the U.S. company Second Sight, the Argus II is an implant that can be surgically inserted into a patient's eye. A small camera attached to the patient's glasses captures images, and transmits them to a small wireless computer. The computer processes the images, converts them into an electronic signal, and sends the signal to the retina implant. From there, it's up to the patient to decode the visual information, which is translated into patterns of light that outline a given object. An image of a triangle, for example, will be translated as three dots of light.
Since 2002, the Argus II has been implanted in about 40 people, some of whom have been able to accurately identify objects, shapes and even large fonts. One patient, 68-year-old Eric Selby, has been blind for nearly two decades. With the Argus II, though, Selby can now discern certain shapes and shades of black, gray and white. "I'm only seeing a fraction of things but it does still help," he told the Canadian Press. "It's basically flashes of light that you have to translate in your brain, but it's amazing I can see anything at all."
The device is only intended for people who have a certain type of inherited retina problem, and who still have some healthy cells. Recipients also must have a functional optic nerve, and they must have been able to see at one point in their lives. Being rich wouldn't hurt either, as the Argus II is currently priced at around $100,000.
Second Sight is currently in discussions with the FDA about approving the implant for use in the U.S., as other researchers continue to work on devices that are similar, but still years away from hitting the market. Stanford's David Palanker, who is developing an implant that relies upon infrared technology, explained that the Argus II may not offer a comprehensive solution for all blind patients, but still marks a major breakthrough in a suddenly blooming field. "The device is currently very crude, but it's impressive that some patients have been able to read large fonts," Palanker said. "It's just remarkable that we've gone from having no cure to blindness to a situation where we can restore sight to some extent."