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Aussies make bionic eye breakthrough

Tara Ravens | September 03, 2006

SOME blind people are a step closer to having sight restored following a breakthrough by Australian researchers developing a "bionic eye".

Early tests by scientist at Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital have succeeded in stimulating limited visual sensation in people suffering a rare form of genetic blindness.

After almost five years of testing on animals, Professor Minas Coroneo said recent human trials had produced positive results using the same technology employed in cochlear hearing implants.

“We started with the tests earlier this year using a different approach to other groups,” he said.

“Instead of putting electrodes on the retina to try and stimulate the eye we have actually been putting them on the outer wall of the eye which we think gives us an advantage.

“What we've been able to show is that we seem to be able to get signals through to the brain by stimulating the eye in that way.”

After the small electrodes were placed on the surface of the eye using a small contact lens, a video camera attached to a pair of glasses was used to pick up images and transfer them to the electrodes via a computer.

The electrodes then stimulate the retina to send messages down the optic nerve to the visual area of the brain.

“Most of the patients we tested it on see a spot of light and the light gets brighter the more we turn the power up,” Prof Coroneo said.

“The next step from here is that we want to implant a whole bunch of these electrodes and then run a little wire under the skin to behind the patients' ear where we will have a little plug which we can attach to the computer.”

However, the professor warned against premature celebrations, saying it would be probably five years until the devices were available.

“We have still got a long way to go and I don't want this to seem like blind people will be able to see tomorrow,” he said.

“We're not expecting patients to see normally, what we are trying to do is code information from the real world into signals that will result in people seeing flashes of light.

“We are after a device that allows people to get some of their mobility, and some of their independence back. For someone that is totally blind that has got to be a step forward.”




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