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First artificial retina approved in Europe

Argus II artificial retina device
Second Sight Medical Products' Argus II artificial retina device is displayed on a mannequin. Second Sight Medical Products

Imagine losing your sight for twenty years and then starting to regain it. That's what happened to Barbara Campbell, a woman with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease of the retina that affects about 100,000 Americans and gradually leads to severe vision loss.

Most patients are legally blind by the age of 40. Two years ago, Barbara was one of the first patients to get an artificial retina. The device uses a tiny camera embedded in the front of her glasses to capture images that are transmitted to 60 electrodes sitting on a surgically implanted chip in the back of her damaged retina.

Artificial retina a breakthrough for the blind?

The electrodes then stimulate nerves in the visual center of the brain. The image is indistinct because it contains the equivalent of only 60 pixels, compared to the millions normally present when a healthy retina transmits a snapshot to the brain. But it's an impressive start, and the degree of regained vision is likely to improve significantly as the number of implanted electrodes increases.

Today, an artificial retinal implant called the Argus II was approved for commercial use in Europe. It is the first artificial retina available for sale.

While it doesn't restore full sight, it can allow patients to see borders, shapes, and light more clearly. The device is expected to be on sale in Europe by this summer at a price of about $100,000 - not including surgical costs. It's unclear whether the price tag will be covered by insurance. The company plans to seek FDA approval for the U.S. market later this year.

This new technology got me thinking; it doesn't use the eye to capture light -- it uses a camera. What input devices will be used in the future to send images - nearby or far away - to more sophisticated, higher-resolution chips embedded in the back of the eye - or even directly in the brain?

In addition to a patient's surroundings, will digital books, movies, and device screens also be transmitted? And could this same concept be used to help patients with other impaired senses such as hearing or touch?

Barbara told me that her goal is to see colors again and to visit the Grand Canyon. But for now, she's thrilled just to be able to see the light in her refrigerator for the first time in years.

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