BACKGROUND: More than 1 million people in the United States, and about 42 million people worldwide are legally blind. Many of them once had vision but tragically lost it.
NEW HELP: Artificial vision for the blind was once the stuff of science fiction. Lt. Geordi La Forge from Star Trek and the bionic eye of The Six Million Dollar Man are both examples. Now, researchers around the world are studying a device that could help people who lost their vision see again. So far, the device has only been used on about 16 people worldwide.
HOW DOES IT WORK? The device works in conjunction with a surgery that doctors perform to implant electrodes in the brain. A tiny camera that sits on the edge of a pair of glasses sends video signals into a computer. The computer processes the information and then sends it through two cables that actually plug into each side of the patient's skull. An electrode inside the skull stimulates the back of the brain, which creates visuals images. The image is described as what you might see when a flash bulb goes off in front of your eyes. It is also compared to the series of dots you'd see on the scoreboard at a sports stadium. Kenneth Smith, M.D., from Saint Louis University Medical Center, says: "They are really seeing. The brain is getting impulses just like when you and I see, except they're only seeing a very tiny outline -- a little white pattern of white dots."
WHO IS IT FOR? In order for the procedure and the device to work, patients must have once had vision. They also must have lost both eyeballs or optic nerves.
THE GOAL: Dr. Smith says the goal of the device is to allow patients to gain independence. "What they [blind patients] have to do is use a seeing-eye dog and a white cane, and that's what we're hoping to replace with this type of artificial eye."
PROJECT ON HOLD? Renowned scientist William Dobelle from the Dobelle Medical Institute in Portugal was the pioneer of the bionic vision device. He worked on the device for 30 years. Tragically, Dr. Dobelle recently passed away due to complications from diabetes. Now, other physicians, like Dr. Smith, are looking to continue his work. Dr. Smith was the first American doctor to take part in the surgical procedure. He says: "We have several doctors working with various universities and companies, trying to get them to take over the product ... So, we're trying to get another sponsor to take over the development." Dr. Smith says he hopes the procedure will be performed in the United States in the next five years or so. He says, right now, governmental restrictions may get in the way of performing the surgery in the United States. "There were no governmental or hospital problems with getting permission to do the experimental operation in Portugal, whereas, it would be almost impossible here. Plus, it was much cheaper -- about one-third of the cost in the hospital as it would be in U.S. hospitals," he says.
COST: The cost of the procedure runs about $120,000. However, the latest patient to have the procedure -- Cheri Robertson from St. Louis, Mo. -- was lucky. The local and national Lion's Club covered the entire cost of her procedure. Cheri traveled all the way to Portugal to have the surgery. Right now, the computer only allows Cheri to see flashes of light, and she can only use the device for about one hour a day. However, as the power is increased, Cheri will be able to see images with greater detail.
FUTURE: Work is already underway to reduce the size of the computer equipment. Right now, the computer alone weighs 10 pounds and must be supported with a shoulder harness. The cables that connect the computer to the human skull are also heavy. The goal is to make the unit as small as a cellular telephone.