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12th October 2016

Switching on your eyesight

Rhian Lewis couldn’t believe it when doctors turned on her bionic eye for the first time.

The 50-year-old from Wales has retinitis pigmentosa, a disease involving a faulty gene in which a person’s vision dims from the periphery over time. It’s “like a dimmer switch slowly going dark,” says Rhian, who’s spent most of her life racing against the clock with work, studies and family as her eyesight has gradually deteriorated.

Things changed for the better last year when Rhian agreed to take part in a clinical trial to fit a freckle-size microchip between the layers of her retina, giving her a “bionic” eye. The microchip has 1,600 tiny photodiodes, which aim to replace dead photoreceptors in the centre of her retina by translating light into electrical currents that are sent to the brain.

The result? “Suddenly ‒ oh, my God ‒ there’s something there,” Rhian recalls. She explains that it was “not an image as such; just sort of an awareness that there’s a difference.” Robert MacLaren, the Oxford surgeon who carried out the operation, clarifies that the goal was never to get full vision, but to improve his patient’s ability to recognise objects and move around.

And that it has. Rhian can again see the lights of her Christmas tree, and for this she’s grateful. Though she describes her bionic eye as “a miracle of sorts”, she’s aware that her other eye will eventually fail. Nevertheless, she’s confident that the bionic eye (or a successor) will allow her to carry on with life as usual when that day comes.

One of millions

Rhian is just one of the approximately 285 million people worldwide who live with impaired vision, 39 million of whom are completely blind. According to the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB), some 90% of people affected by blindness are living in low-income countries ‒ but shockingly, 80% of visual impairment is readily treatable and/or preventable.

Unfortunately, lack of access to treatment in many areas is the biggest problem.

It’s what makes cataracts the world’s leading cause of blindness, accounting for half of all cases. It’s also what’s spurred the charity 20/20/20 to work towards restoring vision to 20 million people in developing countries, by using a simple 15-minute procedure where a surgeon removes the defective lens that’s causing the blindness and replaces it with an artificial lens.

Cutting edge treatments are also being developed, in addition to retinal implants like Rhian’s. These include promising solutions like gene therapy to repair faulty genes, as well as stem cell therapy, where unhealthy tissues are replaced with cells that can regenerate into healthy ones.

But there is still no blanket cure for vision impairment or blindness.

This is why ‒ especially as we celebrate World Sight Day on October 13th ‒ it’s important to talk about prevention, too. Having a healthy lifestyle is the best way to protect your eyes. This includes a healthy diet, regular exercise, avoiding smoking and protecting your eyes from the sun, among other things. Of course, wearing the correct eyeglasses/contact lenses and getting regular eye exams is critical, too.

The jury is still out as to whether prolonged use of computers and other digital devices can permanently damage your eyes, but we all know that staring at a screen for too long can cause eye fatigue and discomfort. Following the 20-20-20 rule is a good way to avoid this: every 20 minutes, a person should look away from their desk for 20 seconds and focus on something at least 20 feet away.

Our eyesight is arguably the most precious of the five senses. Let’s not take it for granted.