Curing vision problems has long been the domain of science fiction, but a recent breakthrough turns fiction into reality. The aptly named Second Sight Medical Products has created the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, a bionic implant designed to restore vision to those suffering from a rare genetic condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. Now individuals suffering from the most advanced stages of this condition have a chance to regain their sight. What is retinitis pigmentosa? Inside our eyes are millions of photo-receptors, where each individual photo-receptor works in unison to translate the light received by our eyes into information, which the brain then processes to produce an image of the world around us. Without photo-receptors we would be unable to see anything. In the case of individuals with retinitis pigmentosa, damaged retinal photo-receptors cause the individual to experience reduced visual function in low-light conditions as well as poor peripheral vision. In some extraordinary cases, individuals with retinitis pigmentosa suffer from a complete failure of their central vision. For this category of retinitis pigmentosa sufferers who have lost full functioning vision, the Argus II provides hope as the first bionic implant on the market. According to an FDA press release:
In addition to a small video camera and transmitter mounted on the glasses, the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System has a portable video processing unit (VPU) and an array of electrodes that are implanted onto the patient’s retina. The VPU transforms images from the video camera into electronic data that is wirelessly transmitted to the electrodes. The electrodes transform the data into electrical impulses that stimulate the retina to produce images. While the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System will not restore vision to patients, it may allow them to detect light and dark in the environment, aiding them in identifying the location or movement of objects or people.A clinical trial was conducted on 30 people to determine the effectiveness of the implant. So far, the results have been positive. Many of the patients receiving the eye implant have reported improved vision allowing them to read newspaper headlines and see in black and white. As a result of these successes, the FDA has recently approved the implant for sale in the United States for the most severe cases of retinitis pigmentosa. While not a cure for all types of blindness and vision dysfunction, the Argus II offers a radical new approach to a previously incurable condition. The Argus II could also become a stepping stone to greater improvements in the treatment of eye disorders, a foundation providing a model for future innovations in bionic implants.