New brain implant can restore partial sight to the blind

Partial sight has been restored to six blind people with an implant which transmits video images to the brain.

Some vision was made possible – with the participants’ eyes bypassed – by a video camera attached to glasses which sent footage to electrodes implanted in the visual cortex of the brain.

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University College London lecturer and Optegra Eye Hospital surgeon Alex Shortt said it was a significant development by specialists from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and UCLA.

“Previously all attempts to create a ‘bionic eye’ focused on implanting into the eye itself. It required you to have a working eye, a working optic nerve,” Mr Shortt said.

“By bypassing the eye completely you open the potential up to many, many more people. This is a complete paradigm shift for treating people with complete blindness. It is a real message of hope.”

Benjamin Spencer, who lost his sight as a child, described in the Daily Mail his joy at seeing his wife and three daughters for the first time.

“It is awe inspiring to see so much beauty,” said the 35-year-old. “I could see the roundness of my wife’s face, the shape of her body. I could see my kids running up to give me a hug.”

Mr Spencer had paediatric glaucoma, a condition caused by a defect in the eye’s drainage system.

The technology has not been proven on those born blind. If a person is born blind, the parts of the brain that support sight are not fully developed, and visual information cannot be effectively transmitted to the brain.

The US team behind the study asked participants, each of whom has been completely blind for years, to look at a blacked-out computer screen and identify a white square appearing randomly at different locations on the monitor.

The majority of the time, they can find the square.

Paul Phillip, who has been blind for almost a decade, says that when he wears the glasses to go on his evening walks with his wife, he can tell where the pavement and grass meet. He also can tell where his white sofa is located.

“It really is amazing to be able to see something even if it is just points of light for now,” Mr Phillip said.

Study leader and neurosurgeon Daniel Yoshor said his team was “still a long way from what we hope to achieve”.

“This is an exciting time in neuroscience and neurotechnology, and I feel that within my lifetime we can restore functional sight to the blind,” Dr Yoshor said.

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