Doctors are prepping for the world's first "bionic eye" implant

In Australia, a team of researchers designed a device that can restore vision to the blind. So far, it's only been tested on sheep, but it will soon be tested on humans in clinical trials.

Doctors are prepping for the world's first "bionic eye" implant
© Orion Pictures/Terminator
Doctors are prepping for the world's first "bionic eye" implant

On Monday, September 14, Monash University in Melbourne revealed on their website that a team of Australian researchers had managed to develop a "revolutionary" bionic device that could restore vision to the blind through a brain implant. They've been designing it for more than 10 years now, and now that the project is ready, the researchers are preparing for the first clinical trial on humans.

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How does it work?

But how does this vision restoration system called "Gennaris" work? Well, it essentially consists of bypassing damaged optic nerves by creating a "gateway" that allows signals to be transmitted from the retina to the brain's vision centre. This system is made up of a custom-made headgear equipped with a camera and a wireless transmitter.

First, whatever is captured by the headgear's camera goes through a vision processor the size of a smartphone that processes the data and extracts useful information. Then, the data is routed to a set of microelectrodes implanted directly into the brain to deliver the signals.

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The device was tested on sheep a few months ago. The sheep's brains were very receptive to it, and no adverse health effects have been noted in the 2,700 or so hours of simulation performed to date. Arthur Lowery, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering at Monash University stated:

Our design creates a visual pattern from combinations of up to 172 spots of light (phosphenes) which provides information for the individual to navigate indoor and outdoor environments, and recognize the presence of people and objects around them.

Although they have yet to set a date for the first human trials, the research team is already envisioning alternate uses for this promising device. They're hoping to adapt the system to help people who suffer from incurable neurological disorders, such as limb paralysis. The device could help restore their ability to move.

But before they get to that, there are a few more things they need to cross off their list: the researchers are raising funds to create a new commercial enterprise that focuses entirely on the restoration of vision and movement. Marcello Rosa, professor of physiology at Monash and MVG (Monash Vision Group), said in a statement:

With extra investment, we’ll be able to manufacture these cortical implants here in Australia at the scale needed to progress to human trials.
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