A Microchip Restores Partial Sight to Blind Patients

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Eye Close Up With Computer Screen Reflection

In a small experiment involving 11 patients, researchers in Germany were able to restore visual ability in three blind patients by implanting a battery-powered chip behind the retina. The three patients, who each suffered from an inherited condition that caused vision loss, were able to distinguish shapes and recognize objects within days after receiving the experimental implant.

The BBC reports:

The best results were achieved with [patient Miikka] Terho, who was able to recognise cutlery and a mug on a table, a clock face and discern seven different shades of grey. He was also able to move around a room independently and approach people.

In further tests he read large letters set out before him, including his name, which had been deliberately misspelled. He soon noticed it had been spelt in the same way as the Finnish racing driver Mika Hakkinnen.

“Three or four days after the implantation, when everything was healed, I was like wow, there’s activity,” he told the BBC from his home in Finland.

The research was conducted at the Institute for Ophthalmic Research at the University of Tübingen and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. (More on Time.com: PHOTOS: Prostheses for animals)

The experimental chip acts as a retinal prosthesis, mimicking the activity of the light-sensitive cells that have been damaged in blind people with retinal degeneration. The chip converts the light that enters the eye into electrical impulses, which are then delivered to the optic nerve and then onto the brain. In this way, the implant uses most of the eye’s natural mechanics, only replacing the cells of the eye that receive light.

If the results of the proof-of-concept study can be replicated, this type of device may someday help improve visual ability in patients with conditions including retinitis pigmentosa, choroideraemia and age-related macular degeneration, which destroy light-sensitive cells, but leave the rest of the eye and visual system intact. (More on Time.com: Best Invention? The ‘Eyeborg’).

Dr. Eberhart Zrenner, founding director of Retinal Implant AG, the company that makes the subretinal chip, and director and chair of University of Tübingen Eye Hospital, wrote with his colleagues in the new paper: “The results of this pilot study provide strong evidence that the visual functions of patients blinded by a hereditary retinal dystrophy can, in principle, be restored to a degree sufficient for use in daily life.”

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