This bionic eye could restore sight to those who are blind

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Researchers are preparing the first bionic eye for human clinical trials.
Image: Monash University

The age of cyborgs is near. Well, sort of. A team of researchers from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, is working on a bionic eye that can restore vision in patients who are blind by connecting to a brain implant.

The team says that it will be part of the world’s first human trial of a bionic eye. They are also seeking funding to manufacture the product on a global scale. First, though, the team needs to prove that its high-tech eye is both safe and effective.

A Decade in the Making

There are countless companies and startups working on ways to restore sight to people who are blind. Many of those approaches include some form of tech. However, the Gennaris bionic vision system has been in the making for more than ten years.

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It bypasses the brain’s optic nerves, allowing signals from the retina to be transmitted to the vision center of the brain. Gennaris consists of a custom piece of headgear, including a camera and a wireless transmitter. Image processing is handled by a built-in CPU and chips implanted inside the brain relay the signals to where they need to go.

Arthur Lowery, a professor at Monash University, says, “Our design creates a visual pattern from combinations of up to 172 spots of light (phosphenes) which provides information for the individual to navigate indoor and outdoor environments, and recognize the presence of people and objects around them.”

In other words, the system doesn’t restore 20/20 vision. However, it can give blind individuals enough sight to navigate the world.

To prove the safety of Gennaris, the team conducted a study in July. They implanted the system into the brains of three sheep and stimulated it for more than 2,700 hours. Ultimately, the trial showed no adverse health effects. It remains unclear when a human trial will take place. However, that will be an essential step before Gennaris can be used in real-life.

Expansionist Vision

The Monash researchers have their sights set on something big. They want to help blind people see, but they also want to transform their device into something for people with other neurologic conditions.

The university’s Dr. Philip Lewis says, “If successful, the MVG [Monash Vision Group] team will look to create a new commercial enterprise focused on providing vision to people with untreatable blindness and movement to the arms of people paralyzed by quadriplegia, transforming their health care.”

Interestingly, scientists from Baylor University may challenge the Monash team’s claim of creating the first bionic eye. The former recently debuted a “visual prosthetic” device that allowed both blind and sighted participants to see the shape of letters.

Semantics aside, the Monash researchers are seeking additional funding to expand their efforts and prepare for clinical trials. Another member of the team, Marcello Rosa, says, “With extra investment, we’ll be able to manufacture these cortical implants here in Australia at the scale needed to progress to human trials.”

With companies like Elon Musk’s Neuralink also making waves in the brain-computer interface sector there are surely some hopeful investors just waiting for the right opportunity. The Gennaris system could be a prime option to bet on.

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