The Bionic Eye

The Future of the Bionic Eye and Fighting Visual Impairment

For decades, science fiction spun its tales about overcoming our limitations: war veterans who push on with prosthetic limbs; deaf people who open their ears with implants. And the blind, on behalf of their readers and watchers, triumph with technology and rediscover the world. But this doesn’t really read like fiction anymore, does it? People today literally jump hurdles on prosthetic limbs. Hundreds of thousands use cochlear implants—bionic ears. And as for bionic eyes, well, they may not be old news, but they are news.

Engineers and ophthalmologists, physicists and computer experts around the world devise the bionic eye in varying forms. The technologies use internal implants, and external cameras on glasses.

There’s a good market for them. Around the world, 285 million people qualify as vision impaired. 39 million of them are blind. The vast majority are over 50 years old, and earn little money. The bulk of these cases could have been prevented, but things are getting better. Over the past 20 years, many countries have made great progress preventing eye problems, through reforms to national health policies.

And where policy leaves off, scientists work hard to keep things moving.

Technological Innovations to Eye Care

Different medical challenges are shaping different emerging technological solutions. Bionic Vision Australia makes glasses for those afflicted with retinal disease. A mounted camera sends its image to a microchip in the back of the eye. For the clinically blind, the Monash Vision Group offers to bypass the eye altogether and send images directly to a brain implant.

These advances aren’t just hypothetical. Success stories have been told since 2014, when the first procedure was performed. An elderly British fellow, Raymond Flynn, received an “Argus II” last summer, to correct for age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Last month, John Jameson of Texas got some sight back, 4 decades after an infection took it away.

Fans of Star Trek or the Six Million Dollar Man may feel these glasses lack a certain glamour. But no doubt they’re as proud now as when smart phones came to be. Their favorite franchises saw it coming.

Other companies work to enhance vision to restore certain features that have been lost or degraded. Some people, though legally blind, aren’t totally blind. At the University of Oxford, they’re working on Smart Specs. The device uses a color and depth camera, which enhances vision to make the most of what remains. For the millions who are color blind, EnChroma makes glasses to approximate what the rest of us see. These solutions aren’t technically “bionic”, but it’s hard to quibble with improving lives.

Fixing Problems at the Microscopic Level

Some treatments have even evolved beyond mechanical intervention.

Gene therapy offers great hope for the future. It aims to correct faulty genes. Scientists believe their work in this field one day could cure not one, but many types of inherited conditions. Groundbreaking trials have given vision back to some patients who faced utter blindness. By injecting new DNA into the retina, patients have enjoyed ongoing vision improvements. According to Professor Robert MacLaren, “Gene therapy is a new technique in medicine that has great potential. As we learn more about genetics, we realize that correcting faulty genes even before a disease starts may be the most effective treatment.”

At the Mayo Clinic, they’re working with stem cells these days. Stem cell treatment opens the door to replacing cells lost to retina disease. It’s a very meaningful way of fighting off the eventual loss of vision that would otherwise occur. On its own, it’s an effective treatment—but not a cure. Here, again, they place a lot of hope on gene therapy for really changing the game.

The Nuts and Bolts of Keeping Eyes Healthy

But most of what goes into eye care in the future will probably be the same as in the past: take care of the body and it will take care of itself.

  • Don’t smoke. It can cause nerve damage, cataracts and AMD.
  • Eat well! The eyes use muscles to focus, and cells to pick up light and send clear signals. They need to be nourished with the raw materials of a healthy diet.
  • Clean your hands and contact lenses, because eye infections are hardly helpful.
  • Finally, try to learn your family medical history. Vision problems can be hereditary, including degenerative diseases like retinitis pigmentosa. If there’s a history of vision loss, you may be genetically prone. Knowing that, and making it known to your doctor, will mean your best possible chance for timely and effective treatment.

The future of eye health and the providing solutions for those with limited or no vision is looking bright. But proper eye health remains important, as does addressing any potential issues before they could become problematic. If you’re concerned about your vision or would simply like to have a checkup to see if anything needs addressing, be sure to get in contact with Advanced Eye Medical today.