News — 01 October 2012
World’s first bionic eye implant

Dianne Ashworth, who has severe vision loss due to an inherited condition, retinitis pigmentosa, was fitted with a prototype bionic eye in May of this year. At the end of August, the promising results of this world’s first bionic eye implant were revealed.

According to the World Health Organization, 39 million people around the world are blind, and 246 million have low vision. So, for Dianne Ashworth, and many others, this development offers great hope. “I can remember when the first bigger image came I just went ‘Wow’, because I just didn’t expect it at all, but it was amazing,” said Dianne.

The bionic eye was designed, built and tested by the Bionic Vision Australia (BVA); a group of researchers partially funded by the Australian government. Earlier this year, a British team implanted a similar implant for the first time, whilst two other patients wait for their devices to ‘bed in’ before they can be switched on like Dianne’s. “The device electrically stimulates the retina,” explained Dr Penny Allen, the specialist surgeon who implanted the prototype, “Electrical impulses are passed through the device, which then stimulate the retina. Those impulses then pass back to the brain, creating the image.” She went on to explain the purpose of the operation, which has been simplified so it can be readily taught to eye surgeons worldwide: “What we’re going to be doing is restoring a type of vision which is probably going to be black and white, but what we’re hoping to do for these patients who are severely visually impaired is to give them mobility.”

Dianne’s device presently only works inside the lab, but using the vital data it provides, the BVA team is now working towards a wide-view device that will provide users with the ability to perceive large objects such as buildings and cars, and a high-acuity device which is anticipated to provide patients with the added ability to recognise faces and read large print. This device will be suitable for patients with retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration. The BVA said that Dianne’s successful implant had “fulfilled our best expectations, giving us confidence that with further development we can achieve useful vision.”

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