Weekend Coffee: Making the Blind See Again

As science marches on, the miraculous cures that past ages dreamed of are slowly becoming reality. We’re gaining the ability to engineer new body parts, like windpipes and bladders, outside a person’s body and successfully transplant them to replace a damaged or cancerous organ. Bionic exoskeletons to let paralyzed people walk again are becoming commercially available. And this month, the FDA approved the first artificial retina, designed to restore limited vision to people with certain kinds of blindness:

The artificial retina is a sheet of electrodes implanted in the eye. The patient is also given glasses with an attached camera and a portable video processor. This system, called Argus II, allows visual signals to bypass the damaged portion of the retina and be transmitted to the brain.

With the artificial retina or retinal prosthesis, a blind person cannot see in the conventional sense, but can identify outlines and boundaries of objects, especially when there is contrast between light and dark — fireworks against a night sky or black socks mixed with white ones.

The implant is designed as a treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease of the eye’s photoreceptor cells. The patient wears a pair of glasses with a tiny attached video camera, which transmits an image to an implanted chip that sends signals to undamaged nerve cells. The doctors who designed it speculate that in the future, they may be able to implant the electrodes directly in the brain rather than the eye, expanding the range of conditions it can treat.

Right now, the artificial retina has only 60 pixels, with just a 20-degree field of view: enough to sense the edges of objects or read large print. It’s not much, though it’s a major improvement over total blindness. But this is the very beginning of this technology, like comparing the first generation of Apple II computers to today’s desktop PCs. A new version with 200 pixels is already being developed, as is one with light-sensitive photodiodes on the implant itself, eliminating the need to wear an external camera. In 10 to 20 years, I’m betting, we’ll be able to build artificial retinas that restore vision as good as that of a person with an undamaged retina, making blindness a temporary inconvenience rather than a lifelong deficit.

And why stop there? The possibilities of this technology are enormous. Why not build an artificial retina with night vision, or with sensors that detect infrared or ultraviolet light? What if we built one that had four different kinds of color receptors, rather than the three kinds that human beings have – could the brain learn to use that information and turn people into artificial tetrachromats? Would they be able to see new colors that the rest of us couldn’t?

In 40 to 50 years, I’d predict, we’ll have retinal implants better than the human eye, so much so that healthy people will choose to get them just to improve their vision. It’s going to be a strange new world when the limitations of biology no longer constrain us, but it may be here sooner than we think.

Image credit: Kyle May

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Bdole

    Takes gadget envy to a whole new level. I’d be pissed if I learned that right after I had the surgery, they upgraded the technology.

  • ImRike

    They might be able to put a USB Port behind your ear so you can plug in to upgrade…

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

    Why not build an artificial retina with night vision, or with sensors that detect infrared or ultraviolet light? What if we built one that had four different kinds of color receptors, rather than the three kinds that human beings have –

    Adam, don’t tell me you’ve decided to embrace transhumanism, I could have sworn you have said previously that it’s not your thing…

  • Jack7

    Too late for my father who had RP. He had little sight as a child, didn’t go to school past the 3rd grade, tried to operate a truck farm in Alberta, Canada until his failing eyesight prevented him from doing that. We moved to a small city, where my mother died and my father took over the job of raising the 8 children still at home.
    The resounding echo I heard throughout the years until he died were, “If I could only see just a bit better”.

  • Bdole

    @ImRike,
    Oh, can you imagine being pestered by annoying upgrade reminders in your enhanced field of vision.

    And imagine the pop-up ad potential.

    You look at tweed jackets and get a pop-up for Brooks Brothers.
    Your new eyes linger on an attractive member of the opposite (or same) sex, bam! you get “available singles in your area” – maybe even a ChristianMingle.com ad or J-Date.

  • Elizabeth

    See, it’s stuff like this that makes me almost giddy about the future! How can anyone not see this as some human achievements at their best?

    –Elizabeth

  • Azkyroth

    How can anyone not see this as some human achievements at their best?

    Desperately needing it? ;/

  • Adam Lee

    Adam, don’t tell me you’ve decided to embrace transhumanism, I could have sworn you have said previously that it’s not your thing…

    Nah, I’m still skeptical of transhumanism; I think most of their claims are either wildly overblown or not nearly as beneficial as their advocates believe. But this one is just modest enough to be realistic. And I have to admit, it would be pretty cool to see in ultraviolet light.

  • Loren Petrich

    It might also be nice to see light polarization. One can do celestial navigation with it the way that bees do, among other things.


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