Bionic Eye Provides Hope for Degenerative Disease

As a child, Fran noticed she couldn't see well at night, and when she was a teenager she wasn't able to drive at night.

She was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that begins by affecting your peripheral vision and slowly causes you to go blind. Fran has been blind for more than 10 years and has only a little bit of light perception. She isn’t able to see her oldest son’s wife or her grandchildren.

It was after she learned both her sons had inherited the disease that she decided to try an experimental treatment in hopes of regaining some of her eyesight and providing inspiration for her sons.

Surgeon Dr. Allen Ho explains that retinitis pigmentosa causes the vision cells to wither and die off. He is testing a bionic eye, called the Argus II, which is a 60-pixel chip implanted in the retina that bypasses the dead vision cells and gives patients the perception of vision. The electrode implanted in the eye stimulates the macula of the eye the same way the vision cells would have, and then communicates wirelessly to a video camera in the nose bridge of a pair of glasses. The image gets processed and sent to the electrode in the eye, which creates the sense of vision.

Fran, who was one of the first in the country to receive an implant, says she can see shapes when she’s wearing the glasses.

“I can see your head. It’s amazing,” Fran tells family medicine physician Dr. Rachael Ross. "I cannot tell you what color your eyes are, but I can see where you are.”

“We often times take sight for granted, and even though you can’t provide perfect vision, the ability, clearly, to make out things when you couldn’t see anything before truly can change your life,” ER physician Dr. Travis Stork says.

Patients must have advanced vision loss to qualify for the implant. The next step is to update the technology to try to improve resolution and color vision and to apply it to other eye diseases, such as advanced age-related macular degeneration.

Fran’s son Eric says his sight already has degenerated so he can't see at night, and he uses a cane to help him get around in dimly lit places.

“I see my mother and I see this technology, and it’s a very terrifying thing to think about going blind, but now to see this new hope at the end, is very inspiring,” he says.

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