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'Artificial retina' allows limited sight to the blind

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 15th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A technology called the "artificial retina" has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It's the first treatment to give limited vision to people who are blind. Users of the device can't "see" in the conventional sense, but can identify outlines and boundaries of objects. It's especially helpful when there is contrast between light and dark, such as fireworks against a night sky or black socks mixed with white ones.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic online) - Artificial retina also allows people with a certain type of blindness to detect crosswalks on the street, the presence of people or cars and even large numbers or letters. Artificial retina is being heralded as a milestone in a new frontier in vision research.

"This is just the beginning," Grace Shen, a director of the retinal diseases program at the National Eye Institute says. "We have a lot of exciting things sitting in the wings," in a field in which scientists are making strides with gene therapy, optogenetics and stem cells.

Described as a sheet of electrodes implanted in the eye, the patient using the artificial retina is also given glasses with an attached camera and a portable video processor. Called Argus II, the system allows visual signals to bypass the damaged portion of the retina and be transmitted to the brain.

One of four dozen American and European people who have been given the system in a test trial, 74-year-old Elias Konstantopolous, a retired electrician in Baltimore is bullish on the system.

"Without the system, I wouldn't be able to see anything at all, and if you were in front of me and you moved left and right, I'm not going to realize any of this," Konstantopolous says, adding that it helps him differentiate curbs from roads, and detect contours of objects and people. "When you have nothing, this is something. It's a lot."

The F.D.A. has approved Argus II to treat people with severe retinitis pigmentosa, in which photoreceptor cells, which take in light, deteriorate. The eyeglass camera captures images, which the video processor translates into pixelized patterns of light and dark, and transmits them to the electrodes. The electrodes then send them to the brain.

"The questions that this particular device raised for F.D.A. were very new," Dr. Malvina Eydelman, the F.D.A.'s director for the Division of Ophthalmic and Ear, Nose, and Throat Devices says. "It's a big step forward for the whole ophthalmology field."

About 100,000 Americans currently have retinitis pigmentosa, but initially between 10,000 and 15,000 will likely qualify for the Argus II. In order to be eligible, people must be over 25, have previously had useful vision and be so visually impaired that the device would be an improvement.

Experts say the technology holds promise for others who are blind, especially those with advanced age-related macular degeneration, the major cause of vision loss in older people, affecting about two million Americans.

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