May 4, 2012 at 6:10 PM ET
It's no miracle cure, but new research into retinal implants is showing promising results. Patients in the UK and Hong Kong have been restored rudimentary sight after years of blindness through the use of light-sensitive microchips in the eye.
The idea of a retinal implant is not new, and studies reach back 10 to 15 years, but the science is getting to the point where such a device may actually become a prescribed treatment. The current tests, by German medical research company Retina Implant AG, show that not only is the procedure safe, but even in an early state it can have highly beneficial results for the visually impaired.
Chris James and Robin Millar in the UK and Tsang Wu Suet Yun in Hong Kong are all receiving experimental implant treatment for retinitis pigmentosa. The condition causes the light-sensing retina at the back of the eye to deteriorate, leading to blindness but leaving the optic nerve and vision-processing portions of the brain intact. Of the various forms of blindness, retinal degeneration is the most promising for treatment, as replacing or repairing other parts of the visual system can be far more complicated.
Retinal implants perform the duties of the rod and cone cells in the retina, detecting light and reporting it to the other cells, which then carry that information to the brain. The tiny (0.1 x 0.1 in.) implant being tested on these patients is controlled and powered by a second chip implanted behind the ear — a more accessible location for plugs and buttons than inside the eye.
The image produced by the sensor is low-resolution even under ideal conditions and with the brain interpreting the data correctly, but the patients reported various positive effects. They were all able to orient themselves towards light sources, determine basic shapes up close, and one man even claims it has restored his ability to dream in color.
These clinical trials are expected to last a year if there are no problems, and even if all goes well there are many more obstacles to overcome. But the rapidly advancing research going on worldwide indicates that it is only a matter of time.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.