A Bionic Eye That Will Help the Blind to See

| By Amanda Brooks

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Restoring vision has always been a concept that innovators across the globe have strived to achieve. While glasses and contact lenses improve one’s failing vision, actually restoring lost sight seemed to be out of reach. However, for more than two decades, a California-based company has been working on developing an implant that restores vision for people blinded by the degenerative eye disease known as retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

While the retinal prothesis received clinical approval in Europe more than three years ago, it has only recently been released in the US, and comes at a price tag of roughly $145,000.

The innovation behind the Argus II

The implant developed by Second Sight – known as the Argus II – is a miniature video camera mounted on a pair of glasses that picks up images, which are then sent to a micro-processor that is wirelessly transmitted to a computer chip in the eye. The implant stimulates parts of the retina that are still healthy, and provides flashes of light that the patient can interpret as an image.

While this bionic eye won’t let the blind see 20/20, this initial incarnation could eventually help sufferers of RP sort laundry and follow the lines of a crosswalk. It’ll require them to “see” differently, by deciphering visual patterns rather than seeing the crystal-clear images that 20/20 vision provides.

Is it worth the price tag?

With a price tag skyrocketing beyond $100,000, is the Argus II worth it? Medicare has provided reimbursement nationally, but out of pocket costs for patients still make this bionic eye far from accessible to the general population. For the price of a new home, RP sufferers will be able to improve their vision slightly (in some cases, slowly read large print), but they won’t be able to – for example – drive on their own.

Thus, is it even worth the investment?

It depends on who you ask. Sure, it’s easy for people who are not visually impaired to say that the Argus II is far too expensive, and provides little return on investment, but what about those who do suffer from RP? In an interview with ABC News, Larry Hester of Durham, N.C., described what it would be like to regain his vision.

“If my sight was ever completely restored, the very first thing I would want to do would be to see my wife,” he said. Hester, who lost his vision due to RP, just after celebrating his 10-year anniversary with his wife, Jerry, became an early candidate for the bionic eye through Duke University Hospital.

Of course, the key term here is “fully.” Hester’s vision wouldn’t be fully restored. In fact, he’d be forced to relearn the way he sees and uses lights and patterns to provide hints of what’s around him, the same way deaf people use vibrations. But perhaps it’s all relative. What’s “fully” restored to a man who’s lost his vision might not be the same as what “fully” restored vision means to someone who can see just fine.

Either way, the Argus II shows promise for visually impaired and blind people.

The first step toward further innovation

Other devices have come before the Argus II and have helped to provide some improved vision to patients. However, the Argus II has demonstrated its ability to survive long-term implantation in the human body, meaning patients can rely on it to provide them with an increased quality of life for many years. Second Sight also plans on working on larger arrays that would help improve the vision of people who lost their sight for other reasons besides RP. And who knows. Perhaps one day, someone will invent a bionic eye that will give vision to people who never had it to begin with.