Via the New York Times, here's a story that gadget-lovers and medical professionals alike can appreciate: With the help of a tiny camera and an even tinier patch of electrodes, people with certain types of blindness are regaining their sense of sight.
The device, known as the Argus, is simple in concept: The camera, mounted to a pair of glasses, picks up images and wirelessly beams them to a receiver implanted near the eye. The receiver sends data to an electrode array tacked inside the eyeball. The electrodes stimulate receptor cells in the retina, which signal the visual processing centers of the brain, which translate the signal into the experience of sight.
Making all this happen is quite complicated, requiring careful attention to everything from the frequency of the wireless signal to the heat generated by the electrode patch. But so far, almost 40 people around the world have enrolled in clinical trials testing the device, and it's worked - to varying degrees - in all of them.
One such pioneer is Palo Alto lawyer Dean Lloyd, pictured above. I interviewed Lloyd for a feature story I wrote on the retinal implant project this spring. He's a former biochemist with a booming laugh who began to lose his vision to retinitis pigmentosa as a young medical student. It would take him decades to become fully blind, but these were the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the diagnosis alone was enough to torpedo Lloyd's dreams of becoming a doctor.
He agreed to join the retinal implant trials two years ago because he "didn't have anything to lose." As it turns out, he's gained lots: He can make out door frames, sidewalks, cars in the street, glass windows, and even the glint of other people's eyes, he says, "like a cat under a bed where you shine a flashlight."
Though the Argus is the farthest along in the development process, it isn't the only artificial retina out there. At Stanford, physicist Daniel Palanker is working on a similar implant. His group hopes to avoid some of the problems inherent in cramming more and more electrodes into the eye by using video display goggles as an intermediary between camera and eye.
Both methods have their pros and cons, and it's not clear if the technology will enable people to see fine detail or read words on a page. Still, as the Times article points out, the problem of blindness will only increase as the population ages. The artificial retina might be one way to fight back.
Previously: Lia Steakley on treating colorblindness with gene therapy
Stephanie Pappas is a guest blogger based in Houston, Texas who managed to get through this entire post without using the phrase "bionic eye." She was formerly an intern for the Stanford School of Medicine Office of Communication and Public Affairs.