For the past few years, a futuristic eye implant has been helping people who have gone blind glimpse the world again.
Yesterday, the big news was that the Food and Drug Administration has just approved the availability of this technology known as the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System. This is a much talked about breakthrough designed to treat a Retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative condition which causes photorecepter cells in the retina to deteriorate, ultimately leading to vision loss. But while the implant represents a milestone in that its the first intervention to at least restore partial vision for those who have lost it, the creators are already thinking much bigger.
Second Sight, the bio-engineering firm behind the Argus II, say they have begun looking into ways to develop electrodes that can be implanted not only into the eye, but directly into the brain's cortex. This approach would open the door to greater possibilities such as a completely artificial eyeball and provide hope for all forms of blindness, no matter the severity, the New York Times reports. The Argus II is already being used in Europe to treat other forms of blindness caused by diseases.
But why stop there? The inventor, ophthalmologist Mark Humayun, believes the technology can be scaled and re-applied to reinvigorate other functions in the body that have been lost or impaired. According to the New York Times:
Dr. Humayun said he envisioned applying the technology to other conditions than blindness, implanting electrodes in other parts of the body to address bladder control problems, perhaps, or spinal paralysis. “We don’t think of the human body as an electrical grid, but it runs off electrical impulses,” he said.
Based on the science, I'd say these ideas are certainly plausible in theory and hopefully inevitable sometime in the future. However, this is very early going, and numerous challenges still exist, even with the Argus II. For instance, clinical trial showed that subjects reported varying degrees of improvement and that there were issues with keeping the electrodes from malfunctioning. The entire system also involves a complex setup that includes a camera and sunglasses connected to a separate mechanic device worn around the hip.
In time, I'm sure the technology will be improved and refined. Just the very fact that these kinds of devices are coming to market is in many ways a very encouraging sign.