November 15, 2012      

The World Health Organization’s puts the total number of the world’s blind at 39 million–about the population of Poland. For centuries medical science has sought to emancipate the blind from their life of darkness, but with little success.

Recently, robotics, in the form of cyborg implants, is achieving some grand yet guarded successes in bringing vision to the sightless. One breakthrough has taken place for a profoundly blind woman with retinitis pigmentosa?an inherited diseases causing retinal degeneration that leads to blindness.

Dianne Ashworth is now partially sighted thanks to a robotic implant to her retina. Australian scientists have successfully implanted a ?world first? bionic eye prototype, describing it as a major breakthrough for the visually impaired.

?All of a sudden I could see a flash. It was amazing,? said Ashworth.

After years of darkness caused by retinitis pigmentosa, shapes and lights began appearing as electrical impulses from the cyborg chip shot along Ms Ashworth’s long-disused optic nerves to the vision centers of her brain. What’s marvelous is that?unaware of the immense hack taking place?the brain obediently processed the signals, regardless of the fact there’s been no sight in the traditional sense.

In a world first, surgeons implanted the prototype implant behind Ashworth?s retina, and installed a small wire from her eye to a connector behind her ear.

Researchers can now test the implant with a view to developing a vision processor and external camera.

Eye diagram

?These results have fulfilled our best expectations, giving us confidence that with further development we can achieve useful vision,” said Professor Emeritus David Penington AC, Chairman of Bionic Vision Australia.

“Much still needs to be done in using the current implant to ?build? images for Ms Ashworth. The next big step will be when we commence implants of the full devices.?

Bionic Vision Australia (BVA), a government-funded science consortium, described the cyborg implant as a ?pre-bionic eye?. The tiny device is attached to Dianne Ashworth?s retina and contains 24 electrodes which send electrical impulses to stimulate her eye?s nerve cells.

Researchers switched on the device in their laboratory last month after Ashworth had fully recovered from surgery and she said it was an incredible experience. ?I didn?t know what to expect, but all of a sudden, I could see a little flash?it was amazing,? she said. ?Every time there was stimulation there was a different shape that appeared in front of my eye.? Penny Allen, the surgeon who implanted the device, described it as a ?world first?.

Ashworth’s device only works when it is connected inside the lab and BVA chairman David Penington said it would be used to explore how images were ?built? by the brain and eye.

Dianne Ashworth_cyborg implant

Feedback from the device will be fed into a ?vision processor? allowing doctors to determine exactly what Ashworth sees when her retina is subjected to various levels of stimulation.

?The team is looking for consistency of shapes, brightness, size and location of flashes to determine how the brain interprets this information,? explained Rob Shepherd, director of the Bionics Institute which was also involved in the breakthrough.

The team is working towards a ?wide-view? 98-electrode device that will provide users with the ability to perceive large objects such as buildings and cars, and a ?high-acuity? 1,024-electrode device.

Patients with the high-acuity device are expected to be able to recognise faces and read large print, and BVA said it would be suitable for people with retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.

Penington said the early results from Ashworth had ?fulfilled our best expectations, giving us confidence that with further development we can achieve useful vision?. ?The next big step will be when we commence implants of the full devices,? he said.

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