Retinal implant allows blind to see
A ground-breaking retinal implant has allowed three blind patients to see shapes and objects for the first time since they lost their sight to an inherited disease.
Before having the device fitted, each had a limited ability to perceive bright light but were completely unable to recognise shapes.
Within days of undergoing surgery, all three could locate objects placed on a table, including a cup, a saucer and different geometric shapes. One patient was able to walk around a room with confidence, tell the time from a clock face, distinguish between subtle shades of grey, and even read his own name.
Two men and one woman aged 40, 44 and 38 took part in the pilot study testing the device developed by Retina Implant AG, a medical technology company based in Reutlingen, Germany. All had the inherited condition retinitis pigmentosa, which gradually destroys the light-sensitive retina at the back of the eye eventually leading to blindness. After first becoming affected in early childhood, each of the patients had lost the ability to read at least five years before undergoing surgery.
A British eye expert commenting on the German breakthrough said it had turned science fiction to fact.
Patients in the UK are due to receive the implant for the first time in a follow-up trial starting next year. Details of the trial have been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
David Head, chief executive of the charity RP Fighting Blindness, said it was important to understand that the implant does not restore "normal" vision.
"We're excited by this technology, it's pioneering stuff, but it's important to remember that it's not like seeing things on a screen," he said. "These patients are seeing dots and lines and flashes that they're learning to interpret. It's not vision in the true sense of the word, but people are able to gain a degree of independence, and that's significant progress.
"We're still in the early days of this type of science. I have no doubt that over the years it will advance."
He said there were an estimated 25,000 people in the UK with retinitis pigmentosa. The genetic condition runs in families, sometimes afflicting several generations.