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Fun Science FRIEDay – Bionic Eye

Every year modern medicine brings more and more surprises. It really does seem that the limitations of man’s achievements are solely limited to our creative ability to dream what is possible. This week we bring you the bionic eye. As part of an ongoing trial at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital surgeons implanted a micro electric chip into a patients eye restoring part of her sight.

Human eye.

Human eye.

The lucky patient, Rhian Lewis a British woman aged 49, suffered from a genetic disorder, retinitis pigmentosa, which causes gradual deterioration of the light-detecting cells (photoreceptors) in the retina and can lead to blindness. Lewis was completely blind in her right eye and had virtually no vision in her left eye. In an ~6 hr surgery a chip was implanted into her right eye, and for the first time in many years she was able to see.

The second-generation ‘bionic eye’ implant given to Rhian Lewis. Photograph: University of Oxford/PA

The second-generation ‘bionic eye’ implant given to Rhian Lewis. Photograph: University of Oxford/PA

The implant (a 3 mm sq array of ~1,500 light sensors sends pulsed electrical signals to nerve cells) is connected to a tiny computer that sits underneath the skin behind the ear. This is powered by a magnetic coil on the skin. When the device is first activated patients see only flashes of light, but over time the brain is retrained to convert those flashes into meaningful shapes and objects. The images can be black and white and grainy, but as you can image, still have the power to transform lives (Hey! Who turned on the lights!?). Going forward this technology will only improve, and Lewis and the surgeons at Oxford are at the frontier of that scientific progress.

Happy, snowy FSF!!

A cool descriptive video of this story on the BBC (replete with funny British accents) can be viewed here: