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8th October 2014

What it’s like to see again after 10 years?

A 66-year old grandmother of two made headlines last week from the BBC to the Atlantic. And rightly so. Fran is now able to see again after 10 years of blindness.

Fran lost her sight over the course of several years due to a degenerative eye disease by the name of retinitis pigmentosa which causes the cells of the retina responsible for sensing light to slowly die off. It is quite rare, affecting only about 1 in 4,000 people, or 1 in 3,195 in the 45-64 age bracket.

Bypassing the eye

In July, she was fitted with a bionic eye system, which has allowed her to see again. The device is made up of a pair of glasses fitted with a simple camera, a series of electrodes in an eye implant and a transmitter box about the size of a wallet.

The camera records the outside world, the transmitter receives the signals and send them off to the eye implant which gives Fran’s brain visual impulses, just like a healthy eye would. Except in Fran’s case, it bypasses the eye itself.

The surgery took no more than a few hours and after about a week of healing, Fran received her camera-fitted glasses and transmitter box.

“When they ‘turned me on’ so to speak, it was absolutely the most breathtaking experience” Fran told the BBC.

And I’m pretty sure it was. Gradually losing your sight over decades, becoming fully blind and then getting a chance to see again is must be ‘breathtaking,’ to say the least.

Learning to read the signs

Although it restores sight, it’s a different kind of sight than what people with healthy eyes have. According to Greenberg, CEO of Argus – the company that invented the bionic eye – it’s more like “a pixelated image, or staring at a digital scoreboard held just in front of your eyes”.

“it’s the electrical impulses, and it’s about learning how to interpret them”

Confused? Let Fran tell you what she sees.

“People say you’ll see shapes,” she told the BBC. “Well yeah but it’s the electrical impulses, and it’s about learning how to interpret them.”

She can perceive objects but cannot identify them exactly: she can find her way to an elevator but will not be sure if the object on the street is a flowerpot or a homeless person. There’s some level of shape recognition too, Fran said: “I’ve been quite successful at identifying a triangle versus a circle and a square”.

In a video her son uploaded to YouTube “My Mom Can See Again” you can watch what it was like when Fran was fitted with her bionic eye.

And you’ll never guess what Fran is most eager to see next. Actually, you probably can guess.

“I’m very much looking forward to being able to see my grandchildren”

You are free to share this article under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unportedlicense.

Header photo credit: Laitr Keiows/Wikimedia

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