WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
- Neuroprosthetics provides individuals with crippling or debilitating conditions, whatever their origin, with the opportunity to regain sensations and capabilities, such as sight and hearing, that would otherwise be impossible
Over the past several years, people with degenerative eye diseases could recover some their vision using a high tech prosthetics. In those cases patients went from living in a world of complete darkness to seeing crude outlines of objects and people. Now Second Sight, the company behind the original Argus II bionic eye, has developed a new “Visual Cortical Prosthesis,” called Orion I which uses neurotechnology to restore sight for people who are blind from other causes.
In the company’s most recent trial their team used the Orion I device to send wireless signals directly to the brain of a blind patient which let her see spots of light.
“It told us that yes, you can stimulate the visual cortex, you can produce a spot of light, and the patient can see that spot and localize it,” said Second Sight president and CEO Will McGuire.
Second Sights Argos II product has FDA approval to treat patients in the advanced stages of a degenerative disease that destroys the retina known as retinitis pigmentosa where eventually the individual can’t tell whether the sun is out or an overhead light is turned on and it has three main components – eyewear containing a video camera that captures and transmits footage, a small wearable video processing unit and a tiny electronics package that must be surgically implanted in the eye by a specialist. The glasses transmit imaging data in real time to 60 electrodes that are attached to the retina. These electrodes light up in patterns that replicate what the camera sees.
“What the patients see, using the Argus II, is not vision like you or I. It’s their bionic vision,” McGuire said, “maybe they’ll see the outline or movement of their cat or dog, the floor, the window, a doorway. They might see the handle for the refrigerator.”
Second Sight, which has offices in California and Switzerland, has treated around 200 patients with the Argus II and McGuire said that just under 400,000 people worldwide have legal blindness from retinitis pigmentosa.
However, an estimated six million people globally are blindness for other reasons including cancer, trauma, glaucoma and diabetes. In those cases, the eye or optical nerve is completely nonfunctioning so stimulating the retina, for example, with the Argus II, won’t help. Instead, the Second Sight team wanted to bypass the retina and go straight to the surface of the brain responsible for vision.
To find out whether this strategy would work for them, they collaborated with UCLA neurosurgeon Dr Nader Pouratian and a 30 year old woman who had been blind for years, and with no other medical options open to her, participated in the study.
During the study the team fitted the woman with a simple device containing a small electrode array which was implanted directly into her brain. Then, each of the electrodes was stimulated wirelessly, producing the crucial spots of corresponding light which ended up restoring the womans vision. McGuire said there were no complications.
The proof of concept study gave the Second Sight team all the information and the validation they needed to finish the Orion I product, including figuring out the power level and programming needed for the system. And now their next step is to submit an application to the FDA for conducting a human clinical trial. The hope is to enroll their first patient during the first half of 2017.
McGuire, who joined Second Sight last year, recalled watching retinitis pigmentosa patients gain bionic vision.
“When they see light for the first time, it’s usually a pretty emotional moment,” he said, “I’ve walked up and down the street with a lady, for example, who could tell where the cars were parked. She could see the crosswalk because it was white lines on black pavement. She called it the zebra stripes, and those sorts of feelings – of seeing again – just can’t be replicated, they’re amazing.”