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The Race For The World’s First Bionic Eye

3 years, 8 months ago

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Posted on Sep 15, 2020, 4 p.m.

Monash University, Melbourne researchers have built a bionic device to restore vision to the blind via a brain implant, and these same implants could potentially treat paralysis as well. 

Preparations are now being made for what could be the world’s first human clinical trial for a bionic eye, and the research team is asking for additional funding to eventually manufacture the device on a global scale. 

The Gennaris Bionic Vision System is a project that has been ongoing for over a decade, and consists of brain implanted microelectrodes that bypass damaged optic nerves to allow signals to be transmitted from the retina to the vision center of the brain. The system also has custom designed headgear that includes a camera and wireless transmitter; a processor unit handles the data crunching while a set of implants deliver the signals. 

“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,” says Arthur Lowery, professor at Monash University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering.

If the trial is successful the team hopes to be able to adapt the system to help those with untreatable neurological conditions such as limb paralysis to regain movement. 

“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,” Lewis said.

The Gennaris Array was safely transplanted into the brains of three sheep in a recent trial using a pneumatic insertor with a cumulative 2,700 hour of stimulation being shown to not cause any adverse health effects. However, it is unclear when the first human trial will take place. 

“With extra investment, we’ll be able to manufacture these cortical implants here in Australia at the scale needed to progress to human trials,” Marcello Rosa, professor of physiology at Monash and MVG member, said in the statement.

The Monash announcement comes just after Neuralink announced in August that it is testing their coin-sized brain-computer interface in live pigs with a similar end goal to treat brain issues such as blindness and paralysis. 

The race to deliver the world’s first bionic eye may technically come down to semantics, as a separate brain implant and visual prosthetic device has been developed by scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine Houston that has recently allowed a blind and sighted participant to see the shape of letters according to a report published in Cell Press on May 14, 2020. 

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