Tiny chip placed in eyes could one day restore sight to blind

18 Apr 2018

Image: Antonio Petrone/Shutterstock

Blindness in the elderly could one day be eradicated thanks to a new chip, which, when placed in an affected eye, helps a person see light once again.

When it comes to blindness, there can be no single fix for a person, given that there could be a multitude of different reasons for why it is occurring.

The most common form of blindness for those aged over 65 is macular degeneration, a disease that slowly degrades light-sensitive cells in the retina. So far, we have seen no effective or permanent treatment.

Now, however, a researcher from Stanford University has unveiled a chip – more than a decade in the making – that could one day restore the vision of a blind person to what they would have had in their youth.

Fascinated by the function of the eye, physicist Daniel Palanker developed a device that combines image-processing goggles and tiny silicon chips implanted in the retina. So far, it has achieved a vision accuracy of 20/200, with 20/20 being considered normal vision.

So far, this means the chip is pretty limited as this would put a person below the necessary ability to read a book or drive safely, but further tweaking would one day overcome this.

It is still a remarkable achievement because when Palanker began his work on the project, artificial retinas could only achieve a resolution of about 20/1,200. On top of that, they required a huge amount of wires and electronics to function.

Other devices mounted the camera on to glasses and fed the images through a cable to an electrode array placed on the retina.

However, all options demanded invasive, complex surgery and long-term maintenance issues, including managing problematic cables that crossed the eye wall, sometimes affecting the remaining healthy rods and cones.

David Palanker

Prof Daniel Palanker works on software for simulation of prosthetic vision and for AR goggles, which activate the retinal implant. Image: LA Cicero

Solar panels in your eyes

So, in Palanker’s concept, his special goggles would convert ambient light into normally invisible infrared images.

These would then be projected into the eye in a manner similar to augmented reality (AR) glasses, while the solar panel-like chips inside the damaged parts of the eye would pick up the infrared images and convert them into electrical signals, replacing the function of damaged rods and cones.

“I thought that the eye is a beautiful optical system, where information and power can be delivered by light, and this would eliminate the need for wires and make surgery much less invasive,” Palanker said.

The technology has already received approval for clinical testing, and trials only began last month, with three patients seeing bright white patterns in their formerly damaged areas.

For Palanker and his team, the goal is to eventually achieve 20/40 vision for the patients, making it enough for them to be legally allowed to own a US driver’s licence.

“We are addressing one of the largest unmet needs in incurable blinding conditions,” Palanker added. “It’s very exciting.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic