Could bionic eye end blindness?
(CNN) -- Artificial vision for the blind was once the stuff of science fiction -- Lt. Geordi La Forge's visor on "Star Trek" or the bionic eye of "The Six Million Dollar Man."
But now, a limited form of artificial vision is a reality -- one some say is one of the greatest triumphs in medical history.
"We are now at a watershed," Joseph Lazzaro, author of "Adaptive Technologies for Learning and Work Environments," told CNN. "We are at the beginning of the end of blindness with this type of technology."
Any scientific advance would have broad implications. According to statistics from Research to Prevent Blindness, Inc., 1.1 million people in the United States are legally blind, while worldwide 42 million people are without sight.
The Dobelle Institute is among several institutions trying in essence to create a new cornea through technology. The cornea allows light into the interior of the eye.
Dobelle is using a digital video camera mounted on glasses to capture an image and send it to a small computer on the patient's belt: The images are processed and sent to electrodes implanted in the patient's visual cortex. The electrodes stimulate the brain, producing a pattern of bright spots that form an image.
"With this device, you don't lose anything. You actually have a fifth sense restored, and that is what I just absolutely adore with this device," said one of the first eight implant patients to test the technology, a man who asked to be identified only as Jens.
"You are no longer blind. You might be blind to some objects, some situations, but you are not totally blind anymore," he said.
A Canadian farmer and father of eight, Jens lost his sight 18 years ago in an accident. Now he's able to navigate through rooms, find doors and even drive a car to some degree.
"I was able to very carefully drive and look from my left side to my right side, making sure I was between this row of trees on the right and the building on my left," he says. "When I got near any obstruction, I would see that there was an obstruction. I would also see the lack of obstructions, knowing I wasn't going to run over anybody ... It was a very nice feeling."
The black and white image Jens sees is not solid, but resembles a dot matrix pattern. It's like looking at a sport scoreboard with different light patterns illuminated to show different scores.
The miniaturization of equipment and more powerful computers have made this artificial vision possible, but it's not cheap: The operation, equipment and necessary training cost $70,000 per patient.
All eight of the experimental surgeries were performed in Portugal: FDA regulations still prohibit the procedure in the United States.
But Dr. Bill Dobelle, of the Dobelle Institute, says the technology has broad potential.
"It may not work for people blinded as children or as infants, because the visual cortex did not develop normally," he says. "But I would say (it will work) for the vast majority of the blind -- 98 to 99 percent."
Other researchers are focusing on new technology to replace damaged retinas, the part of the eye that converts light into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain to be turned into images.
Optobionics Corporation of Wheaton, Illinois, says six blind or nearly blind people can now see light and some can see shapes after having the company's artificial retina implanted. Optobionics hopes to have the artificial retina on the market in five years, but critics say it will take years of independent testing to prove it helps the blind.
NASA hopes to begin human testing this year on ceramic detectors that could be implanted in the retina to take over the job of damaged retinal cells. And the Office of Naval Research goes one step further -- it says it is on the way to developing a chip that would replicate the entire nerve center of the retina.
With all the new research developments coming into view, Jens says he's glad he's been able to catch a glimpse of the future of blindness.
"I could see that there was really potential for some really good life coming ahead of me," he says. "It was like, I would say, throwing back the curtains in the morning when you get up and letting in sunshine. I would equate it to that feeling."
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