NHS Bionic Eyes: What are they and Who Has Them?

Blindness is one of the most serious health problems. In main, this is because it has such an extensive impact on patients, so much so that there is little in their normal routine that will remain unaffected when it happens to them. As a result, it should come as no surprise to learn that there are a lot of companies out there interested in using the latest techniques and technologies to come up with a successful treatment, with Second Sight’s Argus II bionic eyes being an excellent example.

Second Sight Medical Products, Inc. was founded in Sylmar, California for the purpose of creating a prosthesis that could replace the retina, which is the sensitive tissue at the back of the eye that is responsible for receiving visual information and then communicating it to the brain. Their earliest efforts led to the creation of the Argus I bionic eye, which underwent clinical trials starting in 2002 with 6 subjects. While said product was no match for its successor, the information collected from the clinical trials combined with further advancements in techniques and technologies to make the Argus II bionic eye possible, which started seeing clinical trials in 2006. It is this particular product that most people are referring to when they use the term “bionic eye.

The bionic eye is a simple and straightforward solution to the problem of blindness, though it would not have been possible in previous eras because the necessary techniques and technologies had not been invented. Each example consists of a camera mounted on a set of spectacles as well as a retinal implant that is capable of receiving the wireless signal from said camera. As a result, the patient can “see” because the implant will stimulate their optic nerve cells in a particular manner based on the visual information sent to it by the camera, though the exact extent of the improvement remains a matter in need of investigation. Hence the NHS’s choice to conduct a trial of its own.

What Is the NHS Doing with Bionic Eyes?

For people who are unfamiliar with the name, the NHS stands for the National Health Service, which is the national healthcare system of England rather than the United Kingdom as a whole. Since it is run using public funding, it should come as no surprise to learn that the NHS has a strong interest in making sure that its spending is put to excellent use, which is why it conducts trials of promising treatments to see whether they are capable of living up to their promise or not. By doing so, it can make sure that it can continue providing healthcare to legal residents of England while still keeping its spending within reasonable limitations, thus striking a neat balance between two competing priorities.

In this particular case, the NHS has paid for 10 patients to receive bionic eyes as treatment for their blindness. To be precise, it has paid for 5 patients to receive bionic eyes at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital and 5 patients to receive bionic eyes at Moorfields Eye Hospital, who have been suffering from a medical condition called retinitis pigmentosa. Afterwards, the NHS will monitor the status of the 10 patients for 12 months to see the effects of the bionic eyes on their lives, thus providing it with the information needed to make a further decision about whether it should adopt the treatment or not.

With that said, retinitis pigmentosa is not a single medical condition but rather a collection of related medical conditions that are often passed from parent to child. Over time, the medical conditions cause the rods and cones in the retina to die off, starting with the cells on the outer regions and then moving towards the center in most cases. As a result, most patients start by losing their night vision and peripheral vision, followed by their ability to tell one color apart from another, and then culminating in their loss of central vision. At the moment, there is no cure for retinitis pigmentosa, which is why there is so much interest in a treatment that will handle the symptoms rather than the source of the problem.

So far, the treatment has shown some promising results, which is unsurprising because of the clinical trials that have preceded the NHS’s own efforts. For example, there are stories about patients being able to see large letters and the movements of people standing close to them, which sound unimpressive but nonetheless represent an enormous leap beyond their previous state. However, it remains to be seen whether the NHS will decide to adopt the bionic eye for systematic use in the future, seeing as how that will have to wait until the information has been collected over the course of the full 12 months, compiled into a readable format, and then used to make the final decisions.

Final Thoughts

Of course, the bionic eye can prove useful to people who have become blind not because of retinitis pigmentosa but because of other medical conditions. As a result, should the NHS choose to adopt the treatment, it seems probable that it will benefit an wider range of people than those suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, meaning that it promises to do even more good for even more people than what this trial would suggest.

However, what is also interesting is that the bionic eye is not alone in its field. For example, there are other companies that are looking into similar possibilities in order to come up with similar solutions for similar problems, meaning that Second Sight could see a fair amount of competition in the future. Furthermore, it is important to note that Second Sight is still refining its product with what it is learning through its efforts as well as the continuing advancement of techniques and technologies, meaning that chances are good that its bionic eye will become even better in the future. Summed up, whatever the result will be, it seems probable that blindness is a problem that will be solved with sufficient passage of time.

References:

  1. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38391247
  2. https://www.aop.org.uk/ot/science-and-vision/technology?generalTags=sight+impairment
  3. https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-is-retinitis-pigmentosa

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