Imagine how the Wright brothers must've felt when they first proved that humans could fly. A group of researchers at the University of Tuebingen in Germany are probably experiencing the same exhilarating feeling. That's because they have developed groundbreaking technology that allows some blind people to see.
While corneal transplants have been available to improve failing
vision, this new technology involves implanting a chip that transforms images into electrical impulses. These impulses are then sent to the brain and result in sight for those who have been without.
The first human clinical trials were published in November of 2010. The patients in these trials suffered from retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition that destroys the retina. Eleven people had the surgery and five were able to recognize and identify sources of light or large, whitish objects. One patient could actually distinguish objects, read letters and tell time on a large clock. All patients had been blind for at least two years.
Professor Eberhart Zrenner, the leader of the research team, stated, “One of the patients just last week from the Netherlands told me that he had seen his girlfriend for the first time. He had been blind for 15 years.”
Professor Robert MacLaren of the University of Oxford says this new procedure is a significant advance in technology. “One previously blind patient was able to read his own name with the implant switched on. Up until now, this concept would have been considered only in the realm of science fiction.”
Approximately 10% of the blind population is affected by retinitis pigmentosa. Though the surgery is relatively complex, surgeons are receiving training in Germany to perform the procedure in the United Kingdom, Hungary and Italy next year. Between 25 and 50 patients would get an updated version of the implant, which will be embedded under the skin for two years.
Unfortunately, not everyone that suffers from retinitis pigmentosa is a candidate for surgery. Those that have been blind for extended periods of time, and especially those who have been blind from birth, are likely not to benefit.
Though the results are promising, more research is needed to determine how long the chip would last and to see how the images relayed to the brain could be improved. However, as we all know, so many advances that were once considered “science fiction,” are now everyday occurrences. This latest technology will perhaps prove “making the blind to see” is now less of a miracle and more of good science.