Bionic Eye Creates a Bright Spot for the Blind

A wireless brain implant bypasses the optical nerve and goes straight into the brain to light up the area responsible for vision.

Finally, the lights are coming on.

Over the past several years, people with a degenerative eye disease could recover some vision through a high-tech prosthetic system. Patients went from complete darkness to seeing crude outlines of objects and people. Now Second Sight, the company behind that bionic eye, is developing neurotechnology that promises to do the same for millions worldwide who are blind from other causes.

Recently the company announced they had completed a successful proof of concept study at UCLA. A team there sent wireless signals to the brain of a blind patient through a simple device, which produced spots of light for her.

"It told us that yes, you can stimulate the visual cortex, you can produce a spot of light, and the patient can see that spot and localize it," Second Sight president and CEO Will McGuire told Seeker. Those results are informing the creation of a new product for artificial vision called Orion I that the company hopes to begin testing next year.

Orion I differs from Second Sight's current Argus II system, which has FDA approval to treat patients in the advanced stages of a degenerative disease that destroys the retina known as retinitis pigmentosa. Eventually the person can't tell whether the sun is out or an overhead light is turned on, McGuire explained.

Argus II has three main components: eyewear containing a video camera that captures and transmits footage, a small wearable video processing unit and a tiny electronics package that must be surgically implanted in the eye by a specialist. The glasses transmit imaging data in real time to 60 electrodes that are attached to the retina. These electrodes light up in patterns that replicate what the camera sees.

"What the patients will see is not vision like you or I. It's going to be their bionic vision," McGuire said. "Maybe they'll see the outline or movement of their cat or dog, the floor, the window, a doorway. They might see the handle for the refrigerator." He added that a cane or seeing eye dog would still be needed to help with outdoor navigation.

Second Sight, which has offices in California and Switzerland, has treated around 200 patients with the Argus II. McGuire said that just under 400,000 people worldwide have legal blindness from retinitis pigmentosa.

However, an estimated six million people globally are blindness for other reasons including cancer, trauma, glaucoma and diabetes. In those cases, the eye or optical nerve is completely nonfunctioning. Stimulating the retina won't help. Instead, the Second Sight team wants to bypass the retina and go straight to the surface of the brain responsible for vision.

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To find out whether this strategy would work for them, they collaborated with UCLA neurosurgeon Dr. Nader Pouratian. A 30-year-old woman who had been blind for years and lacked other medical options for treatment participated in the study. A simple device containing a small electrode array was implanted in her brain. Then, each of the electrodes was stimulated wirelessly, producing the crucial spots of corresponding light. McGuire said there were no complications for the patient.

The proof of concept study gives the Second Sight team a head start on finishing the Orion I product development, including figuring out the power level and programming for the system's device. Next, they plan to submit an application to the FDA for conducting a human clinical trial. The hope is to enroll their first patient during the first half of 2017.

McGuire, who joined Second Sight last year, recalled watching retinitis pigmentosa patients gain bionic vision. "When they see light for the first time, it's usually a pretty emotional moment," he said. "I've walked up and down the street with a lady, for example, who could tell where the cars were parked. She could see the crosswalk because it was white lines on black pavement." She called it the zebra stripes.