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Bionic man - blind patient Ron

Bionic man - blind patient Ron.

Bionic eye

A London eye hospital is at the forefront of a unique trial that has the potential to restore blind peoples' sight. BBC Inside Out was given exclusive access to groundbreaking work taking place at Moorfields Eye Hospital.

The man with the bionic eye
Film maker:BBC Inside Out London
Date:March 2009
Subject:How science fiction is becoming a reality with a remarkable medical breakthrough for the blind.

Most of us take our sight for granted but 2m people in the UK have some sort of problem with their sight.

For 25,000 people in London blindness and the condition Retinitis Pigmentosa is a daily reality.

At Moorfields Eye Hospital surgeons are pioneering a unique invention that enables surgeons to fit patients who have lost their sight with a bionic eye.

Total darkness

Ron is one of the capital’s 25,000 blind residents and, because of a hereditary condition, he has been living in total darkness for the last 30 years.

He is now one of just three people in the country to have been fitted with a revolutionary bionic eye, which is having a dramatic impact on his life.

Thanks to this implant, he is now able to see different shades of light. He can now walk along a white line painted on the ground, and even sort out his socks into white, black and grey piles.

Eye test

Lighting up Ron's world of darkness.

The bionic eye works by capturing light onto a video camera in the patient’s glasses, which sends a wireless signal to the implant which stimulates the optic nerve.

This medical breakthrough has the potential to not just radically transform the lives of the blind, but also to improve the normal sight powers of future generations.

This is no overnight miracle cure to blindness and at the moment it's only being trialled on a very specific group.

What is so exciting about the bionic eye is it's potential for the future.

Gregoire Cosendai from Second Sight says: "In 50 years time I hope that people will be able to read with this system and it's not unthinkable that in the distant future people will have a retina implant that can provide them with better vision than normal seeing people."

BBC Inside Out asked patient Ron about his experiences with the 'bionic eye'...

'Bionic eye'
Film maker:BBC Inside Out London
Date:March 2009
Subject:Meet the man with the 'bionic eye' who is giving visually impaired Londoners hope for the future.

Q & A interview with Ron

Matthew Wright and Ron

Presenter Matthew Wright and Ron.

How are you getting along?

Ron: Slowly but surely. They said 'let there be light', and there was light. For 30 years I've seen absolutely nothing at all, it's all been black, but now light is coming through.

It is truly amazing. They're wonderful people these scientists.

It's exciting. And after you've seen nothing for 30 years but darkness, suddenly to be able to see light again is truly wonderful.

It's like the future coming to us now in the present, isn't it?

Ron: It is. My one ambition at the moment is to see the Moon, to go out on a nice clear evening and to be able to pick up the Moon.

Whether I'll be able to do it or not, I don't know, but I'm relying on these scientists.

How did you lose your sight, Ron?

Ron: It's a family thing, it's one of these hereditary complaints, called Retinitis Pigmentosa, normally known as tunnel vision.

And, basically, your peripheral vision starts to disappear until you're left with central vision, which means you can recognise someone 50 yards down the road and wave to them and walk in to a lamppost which is only six inches at your side.

And then, eventually, my central vision went, and I was registered blind in 1979. I got a guide-dog in 1980, and I've never looked back from that.

In terms of your sight now, you have no sight at all?

Ron: None whatsoever - everything in black.

The reason I think that it took me a long while to make up my mind whether I wanted to go for this experiment, because it meant a three or four hour operation.

And you know, obviously you were in hospital and the scientists didn't know exactly what the results were going to be, and you didn't...

How did you first hear about what was going on at Moorfields?

Ron: Basically, through my wife. She used to work for the Guide-dog Association, and she keeps up to date with Retinitis Pigmentosa Association, and we get a magazine every quarter.

They mentioned that there was going to be a seminar held for this advanced technique by Second Sight. So she took the details and eventually she persuaded me that I should at least go along and listen to what was being said... Before I knew where I was, she'd put my name on the list.

Once your wife put your name forward, what was the process?

Ron: You were interviewed and... you had to comply with five criteria... I think you had to be completely blind, you had to live within two hours of Moorfields. Obviously you had to be able to convey to the scientists what you could see, and your ganglions had to be in order.

Did you have concerns about an operation?

Ron: No, if I'm absolutely honest with you. It's always been my idea that dying can be painful and the one way you can eliminate a painful death is by going under an operation, because you know nothing about it...

What did the operation actually involve, Ron?

Ron: It's the right eye they operate on. They open the eye and they implant a small - a ray, and they tack it to the back of the retina and it contains 60 tiny electrodes.

Each of those electrodes is connected to a wire, and that wire is brought out from the side of the eye, below the cheekbone, where you can't see it.

Bionic eye operation

'Let there be light' - eye operation.

A little radio receiver, for want of a better word, is placed there, and a piece of donated sclera, the white of an eye, is used as a sort of belted across the eye to hold it in place.

Then you come across the glasses which contain a little camera in the nose piece, and it also has a radio link.

They call it a RF link, which is attached to the cheek, which is on the glasses but pressed against the cheek, and a cable runs from the camera to a small computer, which you can wear on a belt, no bigger than a packet of cigarettes.

Then the information that the computer receives is fed up to the induction coil, as they call it - the size of a 50 pence piece on the cheekbone.

The radio signals are transmitted to the link on the outside of the eye.

Then it's by the cable to the 60 electrodes at the back of the eye, which when they're agitated or lit up make the retina respond so you can actually pick up light.

Eye test

Making progress - Ron's new bionic eye.

Any regrets?

Ron: No. It's a great privilege and an honour to be able to take part in an experiment such as this, hoping that the outcome is going to be able to bring sight to people, like myself, that are completely blind.

What do you see, what can you see?

Ron: The one advantage it has at the moment is more on my wife's side, because I can now sort the washing out. It gives me grades of bright light to black, and anything in between.

I can actually sort out white socks, grey socks and black socks, but as far as the washing is concerned it's just a question of things are either white or they're coloured, and that suits my wife down to the ground.

Can you see shapes?

Ron: No - there is no shapes as far as I'm concerned... You can't see print or anything like that.

Vision - as you know it - isn't there. I can pick up a window, I can pick up possibly a door frame, but as for - as for useful vision to enable me to move around comfortably, I'll stick to the guide-dog.

But this is early days, it's only six months.

Will this improve in the future?

Ron: I sincerely hope so. I think it's really working with the scientists and also educating your brain to understand what you're seeing.

At the moment I need someone to tell me what I'm looking at... but I'm hoping that my brain will begin to put the pictures together to enable me to understand what I'm looking at.

last updated: 05/03/2009 at 12:53
created: 03/03/2009

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