Blind But Now Can See
FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Every five seconds, someone in the world goes blind. Six million people in the United States are losing or have lost their sight to eye disease, and by 2020, that number is expected to double. But what if doctors could cure blindness? Technology is revealing a whole new world to those who can't see.
For most us, it's another household chore. For Kathleen Blake, sorting laundry is an accomplishment. At 23, her world started going blurry.
"I started tripping over things, and thought I just needed eyeglasses," Blake told Ivanhoe.
Doctors diagnosed her with retinitis pigmentosa -- a hereditary eye disease.
"I thought, 'Well, I'm not going to go totally blind,' and I just kept thinking, '20 years from now, they'll have a cure for this, so I don't need to worry about it,'" Blake said.
Over the next 15 years, her world went dark.
"I have found other ways to do things & take public buses and get things done, but it has to all be planned," Blake explained. "There's no spur of the moment doing anything."
Now she's one of 14 people in the U.S. with a new bionic eye. Doctors implanted an artificial retina into Blake's eye.
"The computer chips and the larger aspect of the device are outside, but what goes in the eye is a very delicate, saran wrap-type electrode, which then touches the nerve cells and excites them," Mark Humayun, M.D., an ophthalmologist at the Doheny Eye Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, told Ivanhoe.
Blake wears a special pair of glasses equipped with a camera. It captures images and converts them into electrical signals that are transmitted wirelessly to the implant. The implant unscrambles the signals, creating a black and white picture. It travels through the optic nerve to Blake's brain.
"So when you first implant this device, it isn't like they can immediately see," Dr. Humayun explained. "It takes a while for the brain to get used to it. Over a period of time, they can recognize large objects like a door, the chair, the table."
Technology is also helping the blind see with their mouths. "BrainPort is a sensory substitution device which provides a sense of what's going on in your visual environment," Amy Nau, O.D., F.A.A.O., assistant professor and director of Contact Lens and Low Vision Services at UPMC Eye Center in Pittsburgh, Penn., told Ivanhoe.
The pair of glasses has a camera mounted on it that converts light into electrical impulses.
"There is a wire that's attached to the temple of one of the ears, and the wire leads to what we call the lollipop," Dr. Nau explained.
Four hundred electrodes covering the "lollipop" transmit those electrical impulses, forming a shape on the tongue.
"Your brain is then transporting that stimulus into a perception that there's something in front of you," Dr. Nau said.
The user can adjust the intensity of the image. Researchers say it's similar to Braille.
"Instead of using your fingers to interpret that, you're using your tongue," Dr. Nau said.
While there's still no cure for blindness, technology has given Blake something she has waited 20 years to see.
"I was able to see the fireworks in the sky," Blake said.
Giving the blind a glimpse at what the future holds.
The bionic eye is also being studied in patients in Geneva, Paris and London. It is currently being tested on patients with retinitis pigmentosa, but doctors hope it will one day help with other diseases, like macular degeneration.
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