Scientists are on the brink of restoring sight to the blind by sending moving images directly to the brain.
In a world-first, surgeons have implanted a visual stimulator chip in the brain of a 30-year-old woman.
The patient, who has been totally blind for seven years, saw coloured flashes, lines and spots when signals were sent to her brain from a computer.
Her doctors are now planning to send footage from a tiny video camera to the brain, which could provide the world’s first bionic eye and restore sight to millions.
The technology bypasses the eyes, meaning it has the potential to restore sight even to those who have lost an eye or become blinded by cancer.
During six weeks of testing, the patient has consistently seen the exact signals the scientists sent to her visual cortex, the section of the brain which usually receives images from the optic nerve.
Doctors at the University of California Los Angeles are awaiting permission from US regulators to connect the system to a camera, worn in a pair of glasses, which they hope will send moving images directly to the brain.
Dr Nader Pouratian, who performed the operation, said: ‘The moment she saw colour for the first time was a very emotional experience. It touched us all very deeply as human beings. Based on these results, this system has the potential to restore sight to the blind.’
The patient, who has asked to remain anonymous, began to lose her sight eight years ago due to a rare disease called Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome, which attacks the pigment in the eyes. Within a year of starting to lose her sight she was completely blind. Dr Pouratian inserted the stimulator – an array of tiny electrodes – into the back of her brain in August. In a four-hour procedure, surgeons cut a small hole in the back of her skull and laid the stimulator on the surface of her brain.
In a world-first, surgeons implanted a visual stimulator chip in the brain of a 30-year-old woman who saw flashes, colours and lines.
In a world-first, surgeons implanted a visual stimulator chip in the brain of a 30-year-old woman who saw flashes, colours and lines. Stock image
A small antenna receiver was implanted into the gap in her skull, which receives signals sent from a computer.
When the team receives approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, which they hope will be early next year, they will try sending video signals from a system called the Orion I, which captures images in front of the eyes using a camera on the bridge of a pair of glasses.
It is built on the success of a device called the Argus II, unveiled at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital last year, which uses a similar camera to send images to an implant at the back of the eye.
But it relied on a patient having some working retinal cells. The new system takes the concept a step further by sending signals straight to the brain. In the UK more than two million are visually impaired or blind, with no hope of a cure until now.
Professor Paulo Stanga, consultant ophthalmologist at the University of Manchester, said: ‘There are a significant number of patients who would benefit from this technology, for example people who have lost an eye on the battlefield or through trauma.’
Dan Pescod, of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, said: ‘This is a very exciting and potentially life-changing development, though the research is at an early stage.’
Dr Robert Greenberg, chairman of Second Sight, which developed Orion I, said: ‘It is rare that technological development offers such stirring possibilities. By bypassing the optic nerve and directly stimulating the visual cortex, the Orion I has the potential to restore vision to patients blinded due to virtually any reason, including glaucoma, cancer, diabetic retinopathy, or trauma.’