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19th January 2016

Bionic eye helps blind woman to see again

Rhian Johnson had seen nothing for five years until a ‘bionic eye’ gave her back her sight. Just as doctors can help deaf people to hear again, this breakthrough is the latest inspirational story of how scientists can save our senses.

When mother-of-two Rhian lost her vision in her early 40s she feared she would never see again.

A disease known as retinitis pigmentosa had gradually destroyed the light-sensitive cells in her eye, stealing her vision. She would never again read a book, watch a film or see her loved ones’ faces.

At least that is what she thought.

But five years after losing her sight, doctors at the Oxford Eye Hospital in England implanted a tiny electronic chip at the back of her retina which acts as a substitute her faulty light-sensitive cells.

As a result, she is now able to read the time and can begin to rebuild her vision – and her brain’s ability to make sense of the new visual signals it gets from the light sensors in the electronic chip.

How did she feel when she realised she could read the time using her right eye?

‘Honest to God, that felt like Christmas Day’

“On that afternoon they said they were going to switch the device on,” Rhian recalls. “They sort of put the magnet to the little receiver there on my head, and switched the receiver on. They said I might not get any sensation and then all of a sudden within seconds there was like this flashing in my eye, which has seen nothing for over 16 years, so it was like, oh my God, wow!”

Professor Robert MacLaren is leading the trial and recognises the complexity of helping people to see again. “Restoring sight to the blind using an electronic device presents huge challenges for the technology, the surgery and above all, the patient,” he said. “But at the same time, we know the huge potential benefit if we can get it right. I am delighted that the trial has started so successfully with the excellent results we have had so far with Rhian.

It’s not the first time someone has benefited from a bionic eye. Last year researchers showcased new technology that replaces vision in people who have become blind due to degenerative eye diseases.

Watch how the world looks for those learning to see again.

The technology behind these tools is complex but the ‘eye’ is relatively easy for patients to use.

Of course, medical science has been enhancing and preserving the senses for quite some time. Spectacles and hearing aids may seem like everyday technologies now but they have a profound impact on the lives of millions of people.

And over the past 50 years, cochlear implants have been helping people to hear who would otherwise have been deaf. Remember how this magical moment lit up the internet a couple of years ago?


Sound and vision

Research in this area is blurring the lines between the senses. Whereas it was once presumed that sound and vision were entirely different types of signal processed in distinct areas of the brain, new studies are finding that sound can actually be translated into images – meaning we can see with our ears.

Scientists are now using cameras to detect images and then translating this into sound which, with a little training, can be interpreted as images by the human brain.

Sounds crazy? Check out this video.

Find out more about this research which could allow blind people to see using music. Warning: the part at 1m15s may change your brain forever!