Researchers at the Institute for Ophthalmic Research at the University of Tübingen may have devised a bionic device capable of performing miracles. Until recently, restoring sight to the blind was the stuff of legends and parables, but thanks to a tiny retinal implant, it may become a common procedure in the future.

The team of German researchers implanted nine blind patients with a tiny 3x3mm film square containing 1,500 photodiodes which send out electrical signals when they detect light. The result was a badly pixelated image (similar to what we might expect a robot to see) but for those who had previously lived in darkness, it was life-changing.

bionic eye, retinal implant, blindness
Image via Sam Bald/Flickr

The study, published recently in the Proceedings of the Royal Society [PDF], the authors explain how electrical signals from the implant are picked up from the implant by the nerve cells lying against the retina and passed to the brain. When the retina implant is switched on, the patients perceive a pixellated diamond in the center of their vision. The image below recreates what this looks like to the patient.

visual acuity
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The implant is powered wirelessly via transdermal induction: a strip of foil that exits through the eye and connects to a power cable that travels under the skin to a coil behind the ear. Power is transferred via another coil that is placed up against the area using a magnet.

Patients implanted with the bionic eye were monitored over a period of three to nine months. Two-thirds reported being able to see people again, objects in a room, food on their plate, colleagues at work and of being able to recognize faces and smiles. One of the patients talks about his experiences with the implant. “For the first time,” he says, “I could see everything.” (More in the video below).

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