‘I’ve dreamed in colour for the first time in 20 years’: Blind British man can see again after first successful implant of ‘bionic’ eye microchips
Posted By Ian Jukes
Surgeons in Oxford, led by Professor Robert MacLaren, fitted the chip at the back of Chris’ eye in a complex eight-hour operation last month. Chris, from Wiltshire, said: ‘I’ve always had that thought that one day I would be able to see again.’
It was the ‘magic moment’ that released Chris James from ten years of blindness.
Doctors switched on a microchip that had been inserted into the back of his eye three weeks earlier.
After a decade of darkness, there was a sudden explosion of bright light – like a flash bulb going off, he says.
Now he is able to make out shapes and light. He hopes his sight – and the way his brain interprets what the microchip is showing it – will carry on improving.
Mr James, 54, is one of two British men who have had their vision partly restored by a pioneering retina implant.
The other, Robin Millar, one of Britain’s most successful music producers, says he has dreamed in colour for the first time.
Both had lost their vision because of a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, where the photoreceptor cells at the back of the eye gradually cease to work.
Their stories bring hope to the 20,000 Britons with RP – and to those with other eye conditions such as advanced macular degeneration which affects up to half a million.
Mr James had a ten-hour operation to insert the wafer-thin microchip in the back of his left eye at the Oxford University Eye Hospital six weeks ago. Three weeks later, it was turned on.
Mr James, who lives in Wroughton, Wiltshire, with his wife Janet, said of his ‘magic moment’: ‘I did not know what to expect but I got a flash in the eye, it was like someone taking a photo with a flashbulb and I knew my optic nerve was still working.’
The chip is 3mm by 3mm, and is implanted into the eyeball of sufferers
The Six Million Dollar Man: A similar ‘bionic’ technology was used to restore sight to the blind, and the first group of British patients to receive the electronic microchips were regaining ‘useful vision’ just weeks after undergoing surgery
The Wiltshire man can now recognise shapes after becoming the first British patient to be fitted with the digital chip
Robin Millar from London, one of two men to undergo cutting edge bionic eye treatment
The microchip has 1,500 light sensitive pixels which take over the function of the retina’s photoreceptor rods and cones.
One of the first tests was making out a white plate and cup on a black background.
Mr James, who works for Swindon Council, said: ‘It took a while for my brain to adjust to what was in front of me, but I was able to detect the curves and outline of these objects.’
Tim Jackson, a consultant retinal surgeon at King’s College Hospital and Robert MacLaren, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Oxford and a consultant retinal surgeon at the Oxford Eye Hospital, who are running the trial, say it has ‘exceeded expectations’ with patients already regaining ‘useful vision’.
The first group of British patients to receive the electronic microchips were regaining ¿useful vision¿ just weeks after undergoing surgery
The company hopes for a further trial with ten new patients later this year
Ten more Britons with RP will be fitted with the implants, which are also being tested in Germany and China. The device, made by Retina Implant AG of Germany, connects to a wireless power supply buried behind the ear. This is connected to an external battery unit via a magnetic disc on the scalp. The user can alter the sensitivity of the device using switches on the unit.
Mr Jackson said: ‘It’s difficult to say how much benefit each patient will get, this pioneering treatment is at an early stage.
‘But it’s an exciting and important step forward. Many of those who receive this treatment have lost their vision for many years. The impact of them seeing again, even if it is not normal vision, can be profound and at times quite moving.’ Mr Millar, 60, who was behind Sade’s Diamond Life album, has been blind for 25 years. He said: ‘Since switching on the device I am able to detect light and distinguish the outlines of objects.
‘I have even dreamt in very vivid colour for the first time in 25 years so a part of my brain which had gone to sleep has woken up! I feel this is incredibly promising and I’m happy to be contributing to this legacy.’
The patients were able to detect light immediately after the microchip was activated, while further testing revealed there were also able to locate white objects on a dark background, Retina Implant said
The chip pairs with an external device to process images
Chris James from Wiltshire, said: ‘I’ve always had that thought that one day I would be able to see again.’
The first real, high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye
Researchers in Germany have unveiled the Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis; a device that completely redefines the state of the art of implanted, bionic devices. The first round of clinical trials were a huge success, with eight out of nine patients reporting that they can now detect mouth shapes (smiles, frowns), small objects such as telephones and cutlery, signs on doors, and — most importantly — whether a glass of wine is red or white.
The Alpha IMS, developed by the University of Tübingen in Germany, is exciting for two reasons. First, it is connected to your brain via 1,500 electrodes, providing unparalleled visual acuity and resolution (the recently-approved-in-the-US Argus II retinal prosthesis has just 60 electrodes). Second, Alpha IMS is completely self-contained: Where the Argus II relies on an external camera to relay data to the implant embedded in your retina, the Alpha IMS prosthesis has a built-in sensor that directly gathers its imagery from the light that passes into your eye. This has the knock-on effect that the Argus II requires you to turn your head if you wish to look from side to side, while the Alpha IMS allows you to swivel your eyeballs normally. In essence, Alpha IMS is the first true, self-contained bionic eye.
At this point, you really should watch the two videos below. The first demonstrates where Alpha IMS is implanted, and how it works. The second video shows one of the first patients to receive the Alpha IMS prosthesis, and how it felt to see his wife’s face for the first time. It isn’t clear in the video, but the device is powered wirelessly from a battery in the patient’s pocket.
The Alpha IMS and Argus II retinal prostheses work in fundamentally the same way. Basically, there are different kinds of blindness — cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, disease, and so on. In a healthy eye, light is converted into electrical signals by the rods and cones in your retina, which are then transmitted down your optic nerve to your brain. In an eye that’s been afflicted by macular generation or diabetic retinophathy, these signals aren’t generated. Alpha IMS and Argus II restore vision by, essentially, replacing the damaged piece of your retina with a computer chip that generates electrical signals that can be understood by your brain. (See: A bionic prosthetic eye that speaks the language of your brain.)
For the most part, these bionic eyes are still rather dumb and rely heavily on the brain’s amazing ability to make sense of the alien signals being pumped into it. That isn’t to say, though, that we don’t have any control over the signals being produced, and thus the perceived image: In the image above, the large device above the patient’s ear is a dial that can adjust the implant’s brightness. Yes, we’re now at the point where we can create bionic eyes with configurable settings. I wonder how long it’ll be until there are bionic eyes that offer higher resolution and sharper visual acuity than our squishy, fleshy orbs.
Research paper: doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.0077 – “Artificial vision with wirelessly powered subretinal electronic implant alpha-IMS” [open access]