‘Unprecedented’ video simulations allow vision of world through ‘bionic eyes’

© Duke Medicine
A first-ever glimpse into what people with ‘bionic eyes’ can actually see has been offered by researchers from the University of Washington, who believe patients should think twice before having pricey eyesight recovery therapy.

The scientists came up with a number of videos showing the type of "picture" eye implants might give to their bearer.

One of the videos is three little movies put together. One of them shows what a person could ideally see through “bionic eyes”, while the other two give an idea of what is most probably actually seen after eye therapy – a blurred and fuzzy imageunable to effectively track a fast-moving object.

The study’s lead author, Ione Fine, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington said the team managed to create “unprecedented” simulations that are very close to what the people with restored vision actually see.

“This is the first visual simulation of restored sight in any realistic form,” she said. “Now we can actually say, ‘This is what the world might look like if you had a retinal implant.’”

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Existing ‘bionic eye’ technologies help to cure sight loss resulting from problems with the retina – a thin layer at the back of the eye containing lots of nerve cells. The nerve cells forming the retina, known as rods and cones, convert light into electrical impulses which later go through nerve cells to the visual center of the brain.

Various age-related eye diseases are mostly caused by the loss of rods and cones in the retina, although the neurons within the retina are left relatively intact.

The scientists from the University of Washington have shown that the two most promising modern sight restoration technologies based on electrically stimulating the cells and inserting proteins directly into the retina cells are not flawless.

Patients with the devices of both types might see "fuzzy, comet-like shapes or blurred outlines", according to the University's press release

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The scientists emphasized they wanted to show people the real quality of the vision they would get after undergoing invasive and costly surgery that is required to implant a 'bionic eye', although they admitted that significant progress in the field of sight restoration had been made.

“This is a really difficult decision to make,” said Iona Fine. These devices involve long surgeries, and they don’t restore anything close to normal vision. The more information patients have the better.”

While scientists are wary, blind people who actually got 'bionic eyes' have expressed gratitude for an opportunity to see at least something.

Larry Hester, 66, a North Carolina man who had been blind for 33 years, was one of these patients – and he was truly happy when his vision sensor was activated for the first time in October 2014.

“I just wonder how I have been so lucky,” he said.