Woman with a bionic eye

Bionic Eyes Aren’t Just for Terminators

When you hear of a bionic eye, what first comes to mind? For those who grew up in the 80s and 90s, there’s probably a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger floating in your mind right now. However, real bionic eyes look and function very differently from the Terminator’s glowing red orb.


FDA Approves Australia’s Breakthrough Bionic Eye

Over the last couple of years, researchers in Australia have been following four people using a world-first bionic eye. This system uses tiny cameras fixed within a pair of eyeglasses. These cameras capture the surrounding world, sending the electrical signals to a processor worn by the user. The processor then transmits the signals to a device surgically implanted behind the retina of the eye, which can then be passed onward to the brain for visual processing.

Currently, the device is aimed for use in those with a genetic retinal condition known as retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a rare, visually devastating eye disease.

The recently published results of the Australian trial reported that the bionic eye was able to restore some functional vision to the users. Specifically, the study participants reported being able to recognize people in a café, organize laundry, find vacant seats, and identify surrounding objects such as trees, cars, and traffic lights.

By being designated as a “breakthrough device” by the FDA, the bionic eye will be fast-tracked through review and assessment, speeding up its eventual availability to those affected by RP in the US. Further work is still needed to move towards commercialization of the device, which will be undertaken in a global study next year.


Retinitis Pigmentosa

RP is an eye condition that can result in complete blindness as the light-sensing photoreceptors of the retina slowly lose their function. Symptoms typically start in childhood, often first noticed as increasing difficulties with night vision. The periphery of the vision progressively deteriorates, eventually resulting in just a small central area of functional sight. However, over time, the central vision may also become affected, impacting daily activities such as reading, writing, and recognizing people or objects. In most cases, RP leads to legal blindness.

The cause of RP is not fully understood, but researchers know that there are a number of genetic mutations that can lead to the condition. RP may occur on its own or as part of a collection of disorders, known as a syndrome. The most common syndrome associated with RP is Usher syndrome, which includes hearing loss alongside the visual symptoms.

At the moment there is no known cure for RP. However, attention is being given to research in gene therapies and – with evident success – retinal implants and bionic eyes. In the meantime, people living with RP can access visual rehabilitation or low vision services. This involves experts teaching you how to make the most of your remaining vision, or other tips and tricks to help you navigate your daily tasks.

Although the bionic eye won’t give you x-ray vision, for people with RP, just having any vision is already a significant step forward. As researchers press forward with making the bionic eye commercially available, be sure to keep your eye out for updates.