When the TV shows The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman were popular in the 1970s, it seemed that the futuristic bionic body parts and abilities of the leading characters, Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers, were just figments of the script writers’ imaginations. Well, the future is now and imagination has become reality, because the National Health Service (NHS) in England has announced that it is testing “bionic” eyes on ten patients who have not previously been able to see.
Five patients at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital and five patients at Moorfields Eye Hospital who were born blind are expected to receive retinal implants in 2017. They have had a type of blindness that runs in families and obliterates cells in the eyes’s retina that sense light. The disorder causes the afflicted person to experience loss of vision and ultimately blindness. So it is remarkable for them to be able to see.
Like the rest of the human body, the eyes are fascinating in terms of how they work. In the healthy eye, the retina, which is situated in the back of the eye, contains photoreceptors, which are cells that detect light and transform light energy into electrical energy. This energy goes to the brain through nerve cells in the retina. But in some types of blindness, photoreceptors die while the nerve cells still exist. Those cells are unable to detect light but can detect electrical stimulation.
The bionic eye, officially called the Argus II Bionic Eye, is made by the company Second Sight. The scientific development works using sophisticated technology. It includes specialty glasses that are outfitted with a mini video camera, which sends information to an eye implant. The images from the camera change into electrical pulses, which travel to electrodes that are attached to the retina. The electrodes then activate the cells in the retina, which in turn transfers information to the brain.
The professionals who are involved in the “bionic eye” project are quite happy about the possibilities. Professor Paulo Stanga at the hospital in Manchester said “I’m delighted. It surpassed all of our expectations when we realised that one of the retinitis pigmentosa patients using the bionic eye could identify large letters for the first time in his adult life.” To follow up and monitor retinal implant patients for longer-term results of the technology, they will be monitored for a year after the procedure to observe how well the bionic eyes positively impact their lives.
For patients who get “bionic” eyes, the ways this revolutionizes their lives cannot be quantified and fully understood by people who are blessed to be able to see. Patients who have already received the bionic eyes have said that before, they were unable to see Christmas lights, friends with whom they were talking, or even family members. Being able to relate to their surroundings in a whole new way drastically improves their lives and enhances their relationships.
After bionic eyes, what’s next? Bionic ears so deaf patients can hear just like Jaime Sommers in The Bionic Woman? A superhuman running ability like Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man? Only time will tell what life-changing breakthrough medical advances are just around the corner. As we head into 2017, it’s so encouraging to hear of this good news coming out of the medical industry.