Imagine living your entire life being able to see your loved ones, the beauty of nature, the words of a book, and then completely losing your eyesight. Your whole world is turned upside down because accompanied with vision loss is often the loss of your profession, ability to read and independence. Now imagine you are presented with an opportunity to regain your vision through the miracle of a retinal prosthesis called the bionic eye. Thanks to advances in science and technology, the Argus II Bionic Eye, developed by Second Sight Medical Products, Inc., has enabled some blind people to see again.
This imagined situation has now become a reality. Allen Zderdad, a husband, grandfather and former chemist at 3M, suddenly became blind due to a degenerative eye disorder called retinitis pigmentosa. As a result, he was forced to leave his job and had not been able to see his wife or grandchildren for a decade. But recently, Mr. Zderdad became the first person in Minnesota and the 15th person in the United States to receive the Argus II Bionic Eye.
Retinitis pigmentosa is a genetic condition that causes the deterioration of the light receiving cells of the eye. This leads to a progressive loss of night vision, peripheral vision, visual acuity, and eventually blindness. The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that 100,000 people in the United States are inflicted with this rare and debilitating condition. The advent of the bionic eye implant has enabled people in the end-stages of retinitis pigmentosa to see again through electrical stimulation of the retina that triggers visual perception.
Three essential parts comprise the Argus II: a retinal implant containing 60 electrodes that is surgically attached to the back of the eye, a video camera integrated into a special pair of dark-tinted glasses, and a video-processing unit. Images captured by the video camera are converted by the video-processing unit into electrical signals that are wirelessly transmitted to the retinal implant, which interprets them as points of light, and passes them directly to the optic nerve. The visual information makes it possible for patients to perceive black and white images and recognize objects and obstacles.
The Argus II Bionic Eye is life-changing and revolutionary, but it does have its limitations. Currently, it does not fully restore 20/20 vision nor can recipients see in color. It does not enable patients to read or see the details of faces. Also, the implant and surgery have a significant price tag of approximately $150,000.
Despite these limitations, the bionic eye technology has greatly improved Mr. Zderdad’s quality of life. He can now walk down the street without using a cane and can see his family once again. Dr. Iezzi, a Mayo Clinic retinal surgeon and Mr. Zderdad’s clinical ophthalmologist, hopes that this technology will expand to help people who have lost their vision due to other eye conditions such as diabetes and glaucoma, or to soldiers blinded in the line of duty. He maintains, “In addition, while Mr. Zderdad has 60 points of stimulation, if we were able to increase that number to several hundred points of stimulation, I think we could extend the technology so that patients could recognize faces and perhaps even read.”