Laser-Powered Bionic Eye Lends 576-Pixel Grayscale Vision To The Blind

A new bionic eye implant developed by company Nano Retina, which uses a vision-restoring sensor placed directly inside the eye is paving the way to restoring sight to completely blind patients.

Though a similar implant, the Argus II developed by Second Sight, has been in European markets since last year - for the cost of around $115,000, all the while requiring a four-hour operation to install – Nano Retina’s Bio-Retina is considerably cheaper (costing around the $60,000 mark) and is much smaller due to not requiring an antenna.

Instead, the implant places a 24x24-resolution (576-pixel) sensor directly on top of the retina, while 576 electrodes (representing one pixel each) are fed from the sensor to the optic nerve [which transmits visual information to the brain]. An in-built image processor translates each image pixel into a series of electrical pulses that represent varying shades of gray. 

Equally as impressive is the way in which the implant powers itself. The implant itself comes with ordinary-looking glasses that have been modified to be able to fire a near-infrared laser beam from the lenses through the eye onto a photovoltaic cell on the eye implant and providing up to three milliwatts of power (a tiny amount, but enough).

What’s more, because the size is so small, an operation to install the device takes just 30 minutes and can be performed under a local anaesthetic.

So far, the implant only works for those with blindness caused by age-related macular degeneration – which affects over 1.5 million in the US – whereby the light-sensitive rods and cones in the retina stop working. Human trials of the Bio-Retina itself are set to start in 2013. Meanwhile, research on bionic eyes with even more electrodes are continuing, promising a future of bionic eyes with a resolution approaching what we’d accept as one able to deliver more human-like images. 

Source: Nano-Retina (PDF)

Richard Birkett