Bionic body parts or prosthetics are now letting people with replacement limbs walk, grasp and even see. As evidenced by a bionic eye surgery this week that let a blind woman in Hawaii to see, replacement body parts have come a long way.
Unlike the reconstruction that created the fictional Six Million Dollar Man television show, bionic prosthetic body parts used to be merely cosmetic ways to hide a disability and not much more. A prosthetic leg or hand did not function like a regular one for replicating thrust for going uphill or manipulating thumbs and fingers to pick up little things. A glass eye did not let someone see. But today’s bionic body parts use cutting edge technology to better mimic their flesh and blood counterparts.
The Hawaii woman experienced a medical miracle this week after an historic eye surgery to remedy her lost eyesight. The 72-year-old had been blind for two years due to retinitis pigmentosa, a group of genetic disorders that affect the retina’s ability to respond to light. Victims suffer a slow loss of vision, starting with night then peripheral vision and eventually blindness.
The woman, whose identity is being protected for her privacy, underwent a four-hour surgery to install the bionic eye (which involves an electronic retinal implant) at the Eye Surgery Center of Hawaii. The surgery is already being deemed a success. After a week, she is expected to recover and see the world for the first time since she completely lost her eyesight.
According to Dr. Mark Humayan, who was the bionic eye’s inventor, the human eye contains millions of photoreceptors. They have found that by activating just 60 pixels someone completely blind regains the ability to see and differentiate larger objects, such a utensils on the table or furniture in the way walking around a house. The brain actually fills in information it receives from the limited number of pixels. While not equal to complete sight, it enables someone it total darkness before to walk around and identify people and things.
The “bionic eye” actually involves both the implanted device and special glasses fitted with a video camera. The glasses capture images in front of them and beam the images to the device for processing. Once processed, the images sent to the optic nerve, which passes them to the brain to identify what the “eye” is seeing.
The retinal implant bionic device took more than 25 years to develop. As of now, the device only works now for patients who lost their sight from retinitis pigmentosa. The team that developed it hopes the bionic eye will address other forms of severe vision impairment in the near future.
The woman will heal for two weeks before the doctors turn the device on for the first time. He anticipates that her loved ones will be surrounding her then so they will be the first things she sees. The team reported that the patient may only see varying shades of grey initially, but studies show it is possible to regain some color sight too. The device is estimated at about $144,000 (not counting hospital and doctor bills).
The bionic eye that will let this blind women see again is just one of the new age prosthetic devices approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in recent years to enable people to regain faculties. Bionic body parts have come a long way since The Six Million Dollar Man (and his counterpart spinoff The Bionic Woman) in the 1970s and become more of a reality than ever before.
By Dyanne Weiss