Eye implants: from dark to light

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Thanks to new technology created by a Swiss start-up people, suffering from severely impaired sight due to retinal degeneration are now able to distinguish shapes in black and white.

Patients wear a pair of high-tech glasses: “It’s like having a sense of volume, yes, that’s what it feels like,” says one patient.

“You really feel there is something there. And it truly is like that, you perceive it, you don’t see it, you perceive it.”

Treatment requires a relatively common surgical procedure to insert an implant into the retina.

It was developed by electrical engineer Gregoire Cosendai, director of European Operations at Second Sight, the company behind this new technology.

“It works like this,” says Gregoire Cosendai. “People wear glasses with a camera that films what’s in front of them. This information is then processed by a mini-computer, which then sends the information to the implant. The implant sends a stimulation to the retina, which allows patients to recover very basic vision.”

The prosthesis is implanted into the patient’s eye. Professor Thomas Wolfensberger at the eye hospital in Lausanne developed the technique together with Second Sight.

“We are half-way into the operation, here you see how they open the wall of the eye in order to insert the implant. This kind of surgical procedure is very common here. The only difference is the extra manipulation to fit this chip into the eye. In that sense, there has been great technological progress, surgery alone isn’t enough to treat these patients,” says Professor Wolfensberger.

In the weeks after the operation, the team follows the patients as they get familiar with the device and their new perception of the world around them.

“We try to adapt to each patient’s needs. We go for a stroll with them, it seems quite basic, but that’s what we do, we go for a walk with them. They sense things around them, but they don’t know what it is. By explaining to them what’s around them, we help them gradually get a better understand of their environment,” says eye specialist Fatima Anaflous.

Since 2006, 80 patients around the world have tested this new implant. Treatment costs around 90,000 euros, which means it’s not accessible to everyone.

It’s hoped a growing number of national health insurance systems will follow the American and German models and refund treatment, with the hope that the future will bring ever more precision to this life-changing procedure.

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