With every new breakthrough in medical technology, it becomes necessary to separate scientific innovations and science fiction.
Most made-up ideas about the use of robotic prosthetics or electronic implants in the body are created from some shred of truth. After all, you’ve probably heard of many similar devices to the bionic eye before.
The pacemaker has long been a helpful component to those with heart irregularities. For a person who is hard of hearing, an auditory implant can help them restore this sense.
The same can be said of robotic limbs, which respond to the body’s electronic impulses, serving as a massive breakthrough in the prosthetics field and helping amputees enjoy new opportunities.
But how far do things go with the bionic eye?
The eye is a very sensitive and delicate part of the body. Having two good ones side-by-side isn’t a privilege enjoyed by everyone, and some turn to medical science to get the solution.
So what can a bionic eye do?
Is it really designed to improve vision?
Can it offer abilities beyond that of a normal human eye?
History of the Visual Prosthesis
The bionic eye is more commonly known in optometry circles as a visual prosthesis. The main purpose of the device is to help restore vision to those who have lost partial or all sight in at least one eye.
The purpose of the prosthesis is just like that of any other.
Just as the prosthetic arm aims to help the user pick things up, and the pacemaker aims to regulate their heart rate, the visual prosthesis aims to help them visualize and conceptualize images.
But this is not an easy feat, by any means. The delicate nature of the eye and its unique connection to the brain makes it hard for some people to imagine how a medical device could actually help a blind person see again.
The concept of a visual prosthesis is very similar to an audio prosthesis.
Just like a bionic ear (or cochlear implant) stimulates the functional parts of the ear, a bionic eye is designed to work with the healthy parts of a blind person’s visual system.
Bridging the Gap for the Visually Impaired
Just because a person is blind or has poor eyesight doesn’t mean every part of their visual system is in bad health. Some parts may be in good shape, and capable of fulfilling their proper role if given a little assistance.
This is how a bionic eye works – it aims to stimulate the healthy parts of a visual system using tiny, micro-sized electrodes. The optic nerves, which transmit images from the eyes to the brain, can even be simulated.
The result is that a blind person or an individual with poor eyesight can see phosphenes thanks to the stimulation of their healthy neurons.
For a person who has healthy vison to imagine what a phosphene looks like, the closest thing would be to close one’s eyes and look at the faint hints of color moving around.
With a bionic eye, a person can visualize the appearance of light without light ever having to enter the eye.
The result is that the individual can now sense shapes, notice changes in movements of objects around them. This could help them avoid tripping, allow them to find paths and doors, provide additional options for independent living, and even allow visually impaired individuals to succeed at certain jobs.
A Challenging Future, With Current Misconceptions
The myths concerning the bionic eye is that it allows people to see just as they would with their regular eye. Experts hope to improve the images visual prosthesis devices can provide, but this will likely take a significant amount of time and research.
There is also the misconception that the phosphenes a person sees with the prosthesis are a constant picture.
In actuality, they function much more like a series of flashing lights, as the simulation functions much more like a constant refreshing than a steady feed.
The idea that the bionic eye is on par with the human eye is a myth. But this device is now the visual equivalent of the cochlear implant, and is a welcomed step in the right direction for improving the lives of the visually impaired.