After 20 years of total blindness, an Australian woman has seen flashes of light and shapes thanks to a bionic eye implant.
Dianne Ashworth, 54, lost her sight two decades ago to a condition called retinitis pigmentosa.
When a research team in Australia fitted her with the bionic eye, she saw light for the first time since losing her sight: "All of a sudden I could see a little flash. It was amazing."
She also saw shapes. "Every time there was stimulation, there was a different shape that appeared in front of my eye," Ashworth said. Check out this video explaining the process, and hearing from Dianne about the experience of seeing again after 20 years:
One thing that's not clear is what exactly those shapes were, or how they relate to the physical world. The device the researchers are testing on Ms. Ashworth stimulates nerve cells in the eye, producing the flashes of light. But it doesn't include a processor to help the patient interpret the images that are produced.
The next step is piecing together exactly how the brain interprets the new visual information so the team can create a "vision processor" to provide a total image to people. That information would be fed to the brain through an implant like the one illustrated below:
Professor David Penington from Bionic Vision Australia said he believes the eye will eventually enable "useful vision," but that "much still needs to be done in using the current implant to 'build' images for Ms. Ashworth." The ultimate goal is to create a more advanced, full version of the bionic eye to provide a complete picture of the world, offering visually impaired people full mobility.
One small wrinkle: if the team does manage to produce full images, they most likely won't be in colour. The technology will probably only be able to produce black-and-white images of the world.
According to the researchers, one of the greatest benefits of this technology is how easy it is to implant. "We didn't want to have a device that was too complex in a surgical approach that was very difficult to learn," said Dr. Penny Allen, the lead surgeon for Ms. Ashworth's implant.
If this kind of technology sounds a little sci-fi to you, consider this: back in the 70s, when people thought about bionics, they probably went straight to Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.
In the spirit of saluting how far we've come, and just for fun, here's a clip of Steve fighting Bigfoot (played by Andre The Giant)
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