Interior of an eye affected by retinitis pigmentosa.

Interior of an eye affected by retinitis pigmentosa.

Image: Christian Hamel

Bionic vision technology aims to help people who are blind or vision-impaired regain their sense of sight. Like with the cochlear implant, or bionic ear, Australian researchers are again leading the way, this time to develop a bionic eye.

The eye is a delicate and complex organ. Light enters the eye through the cornea, a bulge at the front of the eye, and then passes through the pupil and a lens. The lens focuses light onto the retina, which sits at the back of the eye.

The retina has cells called rods and cones. These detect light, and convert it into electrical impulses. These tiny electrical pulses travel through the optic nerve to the brain, which then processes the information to form an image. This is how we see.

Problems with any part of the eye may cause problems with vision. Almost 300 000 Australians are blind or vision-impaired. Bionic Vision Australia (BVA) is attempting to build a bionic eye that will allow people with some types of blindness to see again.

Researchers from BVA implanted a tiny device behind the retina of a patient with a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which causes the retina to degenerate. The device has 24 small electrodes which detect light pulses directed into the patient’s eye. The electrodes then stimulate the retina’s cells, which pass information to the optic nerve then brain, which is interpreted as an image.

Although all that the patient saw was flashes of light, it is still an important step in developing a bionic eye. It shows that BVA’s idea may just be possible, and people with retinitis pigmentosa may one day be able to see. If successful, BVA hopes to invent other bionic eyes to give sight to patients with other types of vision loss.

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