Blind man sees for first time with "bionic eye"

It seems like the stuff of science fiction. But for Larry Hester, this is an eye-opening change for the rest of his life. Hester, who is 66 years old, lost his sight more than 30 years ago as a result of a degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa. At the time when his vision began to deteriorate there were no known treatments or cures for the disease.

As a result, he's spent much of his adult life living in complete darkness -- but not anymore. On Oct. 1, Hester became the seventh person in the U.S. to receive an implantable Argus II Retinal Prosthesis Device, also known as the bionic eye. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the device in February 2013 for people with rare, degenerative eye diseases.

The device doesn't restore Hester's sight in the traditional sense, but in conjunction with specially-equipped glasses, allows him to see light, meaning he can make out contours and silhouettes of objects. Hester is now not only able to navigate a room and find a door with more ease, but shortly after receiving the device he reported "seeing" a white duck swimming in a pond, the harvest moon, and his wife's yellow chrysanthemums.

"The light is so basic and probably wouldn't have significance for anybody else, but to me it's meaning I can see light and we can go from here," Hester said shortly after trying out his new glasses for the first time.

In September, Dr. Paul Hahn, an eye surgeon at Duke University, implanted an electronic stimulator in Hester's left eye. He then connected it to the camera affixed to special glasses.

"Turning this device on allows him to experience a whole new world," said Hahn. "It's not vision as we traditionally know it; it's a whole new type of vision for him."

Patrick Finnerty of Second Sight Medical Products helped to develop the device, and said the glasses provide a "pixilated type of vision." "The patient essentially has to try to determine what those flashes of light mean, and in many cases it can help them determine where a window is, light coming in through the window or where a doorway is, essentially help them navigate the world around them."

Hester will return regularly to the Duke Eye Center for additional training, and also hopes to be actively involved in enhancing the technology by providing his doctors with feedback as he becomes more skilled at navigating life with his new glasses.

"I think this represents a new generation of medicine where rather than just treating or just watching patients lose vision or trying to stabilize his vision for the first time, we can artificially restore vision. I think this opens the door to a whole new generation or era of medicine, which is almost like science fiction," said Hahn.

Watch the video above to see Hester try his glasses for the first time.

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