Bionic Eye

A group of U.S. researchers has recently been given the go-ahead to begin trials to test a bionic eye that could allow blind people to see again. Already more basic versions of the eye have been tested on a smaller group of patients and results have been extremely positive.

Originally developed by U.S. and German scientists, the bionic eye is a computer chip that sits in the back of the eye. The chip is linked to a mini camera that sits in glasses that the patients wear. Images captured by the camera are sent back to the chip, which then are translated into impulses that the brain can interpret. The invention is predicted to be most beneficial to those with macular degeneration—damage to the macula which is the central part of the retina where light is focused and changed into nerve signals in the brain. The implant is designed to bypass the diseased cells in the retina and stimulate the remaining healthy cells.

Each electrode in the bionic eye gives off a single dot of light. While the earliest models only gave off about 6 electrodes, the results were still impressive. While at first things appeared as a cryptic series of dots to patients, with training and practice, they learned to better interpret those images. After a while, patients were able to make out things such as a branch hanging over a sidewalk that they needed to avoid. Eventually scientists hope to develop an eye that has anywhere from 50 to 100 electrodes, which would allow the patients to see a much more complete visual image. While the images would undoubtedly still look hazy and unclear to the seeing person, to a blind person this is considered an enormous leap forward. Currently, the eye allows people to do things such as find their way through a building, find a door or window and avoid obstacles that might be in their path. Advances such as being able to clearly make out faces are still a long way off.

Trials will take place on 50 to 75 patients in four areas across the country over a two year period. Since the device is no much smaller, the surgery required to insert it is now much smaller. If all goes well, the bionic eye should be commercially available soon after these trails end. The device is expected to cost $30,000 and at this time scientist believe the eye will have a much higher resolution as well as wider field of vision.

While all of this could significantly improve the quality of life for blind people, it appears that it will be years before the bionic eye will have a significant impact on student learning in the classroom. Without undercutting its advantages, the device currently is seen as a means of improving patient’s overall quality of life by making it easier to get around and allowing them to be more aware of their surroundings. The resolution it provides is still too weak to allow students to do things such as read a chalkboard, watch a movie, and read a computer screen. While none of these things have been ruled out as future capabilities of the device, it is likely years before the bionic eye will have any significant impact on student learning in the classroom.

By Emily Banks