Bringing Sight Through Microchips

I get a fuzzy feeling in my stomach when technology helps to bring a happy ending. Biotechnicians have been working for a long time on gadgets that help people with disabilities, especially those with sight or hearing loss. From wearable cameras that interface with the brain to ear implants, science has some promising solutions. One solution involves implanting a microchip into the eye of a patient which directly interfaces with their optical nerves. Pretty crazy stuff, if you ask me.

Wentai Liu, a professor of Electrical Engineering at the Univ. of California, Santa Cruz, is the mastermind behind one part of this fantastic technology. The Argus system, of which the implanted microchip is only a small part, works by capturing light with a camera intergrated into sunglasses and transmitting the information wirelessly to the implanted microchip. The microchip is placed on the patient’s retina, where macular degeration or other diseases have destroyed the light receptors but left the optic nerves, which the chip uses to communicate with the brain. The microchip also draws power wirelessly, so no invasive wiring is required for any reason.

The Argus I (named for the mythical Greek guardian with 100 eyes) is the total system, pioneered by Second Sight Medical Products, the patient can see up to 16 pixels (so, basically a resolution of 4×4). It doesn’t seem like a lot, but for someone who came from nothing, this is enough to distinguish objects and changes in light-and-dark. The second generation, Argus II, should get up to 64 pixels (or a resolution of 8×8), which is quite an improvement from 16. The Argus II hasn’t reached the mainstream, but the clinical trials of the Argus I have gone off without a hitch, hinting that the Argus II may not be too far behind it’s older brother. Wentai, along with Second Sight, is also working on a third-generation microchip that will have more processing power behind it, as well as improvments in camera-chip communication and power efficiency.

With advances like these, it seems like we have entered the age of implantation. No word on the data from the FDA-approved Argus II trials, or if the first Argus system will be up for early adoption for treating macular degeneration and other optically-related diseases. However, if tests continue without problems, we could be seeing the final system in under three years.


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