The Food & Drug Administration approved the Argus II “artificial retina” for consumers, meaning that a new procedure is now available to bring limited sight to blind people. According to the New York Times, the Argus II allows blind people to “detect crosswalks on the street, burners on a stove, the presence of people or cars, and sometimes even oversized numbers or letters.” The phrasing here is telling: the sight that the Argus II provides does not sound like something truly analogous to normal vision: one can “detect crosswalks,” but maybe not appreciate art.
Here’s how it works: a sheet of electrodes is implanted in the eye, which works in concert with a camera on a pair of glasses to allow some visual information to bypass the damaged area and reach visual centers within the brain where it is further processed and interpreted. Outlines, boundaries and color differences can be noticed, but it is not quite seeing as you know it, if you are reading this article with your own eyes.
About fifty people in America and Europe have been using the Argus II for years in clinical trials.
“Without the system, I wouldn’t be able to see anything at all, and if you were in front of me and you moved left and right, I’m not going to realize any of this,” said Elias Konstantopolous, 74, a retired electrician in Baltimore. He said it helps him differentiate curbs from asphalt roads, and detect contours, but not details, of cars, trees and people. “When you don’t have nothing, this is something. It’s a lot.”
While the Argus II artificial retina is an incredible achievement, here’s what’s really exciting:
“This is just the beginning,” said Grace Shen, director of the retinal diseases program at the National Eye Institute, which helped finance the artificial retina research and is supporting many other blindness therapy projects. “We have a lot of exciting things sitting in the wings, multiple approaches being developed now to address this.”
Gene therapy, stem cells and optogenetics—a technique used to control living neurons—are some of the avenues by which scientists are combating the ancient problem of blindness. Just one more thing that I wonder if future generations in developed countries will have no concept of.