Bionic Eye May Help The Blind See

Israeli scientists have developed a bionic eye that may be able to help those born blind to see.  A Bar Ilan University team developed the eye, which consists of a bionic contact lens which collects information transmitted by a tiny camera, then converts that information into electrical impulses.  The impulses are sent through the cornea to the sensory areas of the brain, where they are interpreted as visual stimuli.  Although it has not been approved yet for human trials, scientists are currently testing its feasibility on seeing people, using a model of the bionic eye that transmits information to the finger instead.

Until now, attempts to restore sight through bionic means have been limited to a technology which requires invasive surgery and is not helpful to those who have been blind from birth.  This is the first technology that bypasses the retina entirely and is not dependent on the person’s visual portions of the brain, areas that develop only in sighted people during childhood.  This new technology also offers improved visual resolution: currently available bionic eyes only allow the blind person to discern between light and dark, and are not enough to grant independence.

The new bionic eye is designed to capture information using a tiny camera mounted externally, such as on a user’s glasses.  The information captured is compressed and transmitted wirelessly to the contact lens in the user’s eye.  The lens is covered in tiny electrodes which stimulate the cornea, the eye’s richest nerve centre.  Prof. Zeev Zalevsky, head of Electrical Engineering and Nanophotonics at Bar-Ilan University, likens the project to “a Braille lens that enables blind people to see in a way similar to Braille reading.”

Currently, the new system is able to produce 100 pixels worth of information, significantly less than the 1 million pixels the human eye normally sees, but also much more than the sixteen pixels visible in the existing bionic eyes.  The new bionic eye enables spatial differentiation in black, white and grey, but Zalevsky says the plan is to develop the technology to the point where it can handle higher resolutions and possible colour in the future.

An article about the technology was recently published in Optical Engineering and the project will be exhibited in the Israel BioMed conference in June.