"Bionic Eye" Restores Vision in Blind Woman

"Bionic Eye" Restores Vision in Blind Woman

Written by Alex Reid
Posted September 6, 2012

Dianne Ashworth, of Melbourne, Australia, suffers from degenerative retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that caused her to lose nearly all of her vision. But after years of preparation Ashworth recently became the first recipient of a bionic eye prototype which allows her to see shapes and shadows.

Referred to as “pre-bionic eye”, the device consists of a retinal implant with 24 electrodes and was implanted behind Ashworth's retina at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital earlier this year in May. After waiting months for Ashworth to fully recover from the effects of the surgery, doctors switched on the device.

In order to produce vision, the implant must be connected to an external system in a purpose built laboratory at the Bionics institute. Researchers can then initiate electrical impulses to stimulate the eye's nerve cells.

“Di will be able to see a number of spots in different locations, and will be able to see things like shapes, and the edges of doorways and objects like that,” explained researcher Dr. Lauren Ayton.

In an interview describing her first experience with the stimulator, Ashworth remarked, “I just went, 'wow,' because I didn't expect it at all, but it was amazing.”

Researchers are confident that this is the first step toward creating eye implants for vision-impaired individuals, and hope to work on prototypes with more than ten times the power of Ashworth's.

"These results have fulfilled our best expectations,” said Chairman of Bionic Vision Australia, Professor Emeritus David Penington, “the next big step will be when we commence implants of the full devices.

Researchers will continue to work with Ashworth to determine what she sees with each stimulation. “The team is looking for consistency of shapes, brightness, size and location of flashes to determine how the brain interprets this information,” explains Professor Rob Shepherd, Director of the Bionics Institute, "having this unique information will allow us to maximise our technology as it evolves through 2013 and 2014."

The devices that the institute are working toward include a “wide-view” device consisting of 98 electrodes that would allow users to perceive large objects such as buildings and cars, and an even more powerful “high-acuity” device containing 1,024 electrodes. The high-acuity device is expected to allow patients to recognize faces and read large print.

After the success of Ashworth's pre-bionic eye prototype, the Bionics Institute can confidently continue carrying out its mission to make advances toward sight restoration in patients with degenerative vision impairments. The research is funded by a $42 million grant from the Australian Research Council over four years.