The world of “bionics” was made famous in the mid-1970s after a fictional character, astronaut Steve Austin was rebuilt after a crash. With his right arm, both legs and his left eye replaced with “bionic” implants, many people watched the then sci-fi television show and the marvelled at the concept of replacing human body parts with electronic components. In recent years, this is no longer a stretch of the imagination. With the continued advancement of electronics, optics and research initiatives, scientists are on the verge of now creating a “bionic” eye to enable the blind to see.
In 2002, Scientists at the Space Vacuum Epitaxy Center (SVEC) in Houston were experimenting with thin, photosensitive ceramic films that respond to light much as the rods and cones in the retina do to light.
Arrays of such films, they believe, could be implanted in human eyes to restore lost vision. The ceramic detectors are much like ultra-thin films found in modern computer chips, and can be stacked in arrays. The arrays are stacked in a hexagonal structure mimicking the arrangement of rods and cones they are designed to replace. Rods and cones, mions of them are in the back of every healthy human eye. They are biological solar cells in the retina that convert light to electrical impulses — impulses that travel along the optic nerve to the brain where images are formed.
In 2005, US and German scientists had designed a bionic eye that would enable the blind to see again. Nothng like Steve Austin’s fictional bionic eye, the newly devised device was made up of a computer chip that was implanted at the back of the person’s eye and a mini video camera mounted into glasses that the person wore.
As the camera captures images, these are beamed to the implanted chip. This chip would then translate the image into electrical impulses that would be sent to the brain where they would be interpreted. The images produced would not be perfect, but would be clear enough to allow someone who was previously blind to recognize faces.
At this time researchers indicated that this would likely benefit patients with the most common form of blindness – macular degeneration.
In 2008 a research team at Havard-M.I.T. have developed an electronic device that enables severely blind people to see patterns of light. Five people with retinitis pigmentosa, the leading cause of inherited blindness, reported seeing spots and lines of light with the help of the device. A sixth person, about to lose her sight to cancer, also saw the light patterns. The retina is a screen of cells at the back of the eye that records light coming through the pupil and converts it to nerve pulses that register as vision at the back of the brain. The artificial retina directly excites these nerve cells with electric probes.
A firm called Optobionics have already been implanting silicon chips into the eye. Another firm from Los Angeles (Second Sight) has also implanted artificial retinas in patients. The Optobionics device is made up of thousands of microscopic light detectors that directly acivate nerve cells in the eye. This allows for the electric impulses to be sent to the brain and interpreted.
As research continues in this field, there is no doubt tha these products will improve the quality of life for those who are blind.