Behind the bionic eye

Bionic Vision Australia has announced the development of a bionic eye meant to ease suffering from degenerative vision loss. The company's director answered my questions this week.

In March, the research company Bionic Vision Australia announced the development of a bionic eye meant to ease suffering from degenerative vision loss. The company's director, Anthony Burkitt, answered my questions this week.

How was the bionic eye made?

Making a bionic eye is an extremely complex task, but the team at Bionic Vision Australia brings together world leaders in each of the areas required for the development of this technology, such as medicine, engineering and biotechnology. By tapping into the best scientific expertise across the country, we are able to take a leading role internationally in bionic vision.

We are still in the process of developing a bionic eye suitable for human clinical trials. This device has been 10 years in the making, but we are confident that we now have the technology suitable for trials and commercialisation. Bionic Vision Australia is a consortium of researchers from the University of New South Wales, the University of Melbourne, National ICT Australia, the Bionic Ear Institute and the Centre for Eye Research Australia.

How does it work?

The bionic eye prototype consists of a camera attached to a pair of glasses which transmits high frequency radio signals to a microchip implanted in the retina. Electrodes in the chip then convert these signals into electrical impulses to stimulate the remaining cells in the retina that connect to the optic nerve. The impulses are then interpreted by the visual cortex of the brain as an image. With this technology, we anticipate that sight can be restored to a level where users of the bionic eye are no longer legally blind.

Who would use it?

This technology requires some cells to still be functioning in the retina and for the visual pathway from the retina to the brain to still be intact. As such, the bionic eye will be of most use to patients suffering from degenerative visual-impairment conditions, such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration. Following the successful adoption of the bionic eye with these patient groups, we hope to expand the application of the technology to address a broader range of visual-impairment conditions.

Retinitis pigmentosa, the predominant cause of inherited blindness, affects 1.5 million people worldwide and is characterised by the progressive loss of photoreceptor cells over the patient's life. Age-related macular degeneration usually affects people over the age of 65 and results in the loss of vision in the centre of the visual field. It is responsible for 48 percent of all legal blindness in Australia.

When will it be available?

Developing a bionic eye for human use is a major project, but we believe that by 2011 we will be ready to undertake the first clinical trials of the first advanced prototype. We plan to have a prototype ready for commercial development by 2014.

How could this device lead to other advances in bionic technology?

Through the development of the bionic eye, we have addressed a number of key scientific issues in bionic technology. For example, the work of the Bionic Ear Institute has led to a safe electrode-tissue interface so surviving cells can be stimulated. The Materials Institute at the University of Melbourne has developed polychrystaline diamond materials, such as Boron-doped diamond and Nitrogen-doped diamond with conductivity properties. National ICT Australia has been working on techniques for safe, wireless transmission of data and power to the implant. These scientific advances have the potential to enable other medical bionic applications, such as electrical stimulation for the management of epileptic seizures and spinal cord conditions.

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Image: Anthony Burkitt / Courtesy of Bionic Vision Australia

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