No. 1 Innovation: The “Bionic Eye” Becomes Reality (Video)

Tech helps people with vision loss "see" again

Eye close-up

Cleveland Clinic asked more than 100 of its top experts about the innovations set to reshape healthcare in the coming year. These are their answers — the Top 10 Innovations for 2014.

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More than 100,000 people in the U.S. and 1.5 million people worldwide have retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a disease whose most devastating consequence is blindness. Most people with RP are legally blind by age 40.

Up until now, there has been no effective treatment for late-stage RP. But a new technology featuring a retinal prosthesis — commonly dubbed the “bionic eye” — changes everything.

Vision for the future

This technology combines a surgically implanted retinal prosthesis, video-camera-enabled glasses, and a video processing unit that is worn at the waist or carried.

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In a healthy eye, the rods and cones of the retina convert light into tiny electrochemical impulses that are sent by the optic nerve into the brain, which decodes them into images. However, in RP, a person’s delicate photoreceptors are damaged over time.

The retinal implant does not restore complete vision. But it does allow people to detect light and dark in the environment and identify the location or movement of people and objects.

The new technology essentially replaces the degenerated cells in the retina and helps patients perceive patterns of light in the brain. People then learn to interpret these patterns of light — and thereby regain some visual function.

The retinal implant does not restore complete vision. But it does allow people to detect light and dark in the environment and identify the location or movement of people and objects.

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Results from a clinical study of 30 participants who received the “bionic eyes” reported that most were able to perform basic activities better with the prosthesis than without it. They could walk on a sidewalk without stepping off the curb; match black, grey, and white socks; and recognize large letters, words and sentences.

After two decades of development and testing and more than $200 million in funding, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the system in 2013. The retinal prosthesis is a game changer for sight-affecting diseases — and a huge step forward for the thousands of people who previously had no other treatment options.

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