Bionic Eye: Ray of Light for the Visually Impaired

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2014 has truly brought not one but several rays of hope that are set to pour light into the lives of the visually impaired. Surgeons at the University of Michigan Health System have made the first officially FDA-approved “bionic eye” transplant, allowing patients with degenerative eye diseases to identify light and shapes.

So what does the bionic eye do? It uses a retinal implant connected to a video camera to convert images into electrical impulses that activate whatever remaining retinal cells are present in the body. These cells then carry the signal back to the brain, thus mimicking the function of the retina and restore sight in those with severe vision loss.

With or without glasses: who will win in the end?

Argus II retinal prosthesis, which has been the brainchild of Second Sight, Inc., has received the FDA’s approval to be commercialized as a visual prosthesis. This device has a video camera fitted to a pair of glasses that capture and process images which are then sent wirelessly to a bionic implant at the back of the eye that stimulates dormant optic nerves to generate points of light (phosphenes) to form the basis of images in the brain.

In Europe, officials have approved a second artificial retina – the higher-resolution Alpha IMS – that has been developed by researchers at the University of Tübingen, Germany. This device does not require any spectacles and allows more freedom of movement, since users can simply look around instead of turning their head to capture a video.

While the Argus II relies on glasses, an externally-mounted video camera, and a separate processing unit, the Alpha IMS system detects light coming into the eye via electrodes implanted underneath the patient’s retina. These electrodes feed the light into a microchip that sends signals to the brain. The brain processes this data as it would with signals received from a healthy organic eye and reflects a black and white image. This device has a dial fitted behind the ear to adjust brightness, and the whole system is powered wirelessly by a pocket battery.

In the run on a similar track are researchers from MIT who had announced way back in 1989 itself that they had developed a chip implant that could restore vision in some patients. MIT’s eyeball design holds a microchip that connects to an external coil on a pair of spectacles. The chip receives visual information and activates electrodes that, in turn, fire the nerve cells that carry visual input to the brain.

There’s more to the vision story. An Australian team led by Professor Anthony Burkitt is developing two retinal prostheses. The Wide-View device incorporates a microchip with 98 stimulating electrodes and aims to provide increased mobility for the visually challenged. This implant is to be placed in the suprachoroidal space. The Bionic Vision Australia consortium is concurrently developing the High-Acuity Device, which incorporates a number of new technologies to bring together a microchip and an implant with 1,024 electrodes.

Who has the eye for patenting?

R&D in the field of visual prosthesis started way back in the 1980s. Since then, more than 3,000 patents have been filed worldwide. There has been a steady increase in the number of patents published each year, with 2008 witnessing a significant spike in patent publication.

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Technology of focus

Focus has been on multiple facets of the visual prosthesis technology. Impulse generation for activating brain cells to recognize visual impact is the major field of invention, closely followed by patents related to various eye parts, including photosensitive microchip retinal implants to capture visual imagery. Methods for delivery of ocular prosthetic implants are also a major patenting domain.

And the top players are…

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Second Sight, Inc. eats the fair share of the patent cake with 122 granted US patents and 57 pending applications, marking a major dominance of its Argus II system.

Patents related to Alpha IMS are assigned to a Germany based company named Retina Implant AG. Though they have only eight US patents and 1 pending application, they have been filing for patent rights in Europe and Germany.

The following graph speaks the patent story:

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(Featured image source: https://pixabay.com/en/machine-mechanical-eye-blue-look-1776925/)

Aditi Das
Aditi Das

Aditi Das is a compulsive sci-fi dreamer who conjures up aliens from vehicles stuck in a traffic snarl. When she isn’t driving teams, inspiring them to shred technologies to pieces and unearth their DNA, she’s busy dishing up Bengali food and blogging.


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