Scientists are looking to develop an implantable prosthetic that would give the blind the capability to have an artificial vision.
It’s called the Orion Visual Cortical Prosthesis System, and it’s been developed by Second Sight Medical Products.
The product comes ten years after doctors back doctors at the University of Manchester in 2009 implanted the first bionic eye in a patient called the Argus II.
Orion, similar to Argus II, aims to create artificial intelligence but taking it a step further by making the system more capable by placing an implant directly into the patient’s brain.
Orion holds the potential to provide useful artificial vision to individuals blind from many causes, including glaucoma, eye injury, diabetic retinopathy, optic nerve disease or injury, and retinitis pigmentosa.
“Given the positive results of our early feasibility study, we believe that Orion offers the most effective and quickest path forward to treat nearly all forms of blindness and address a significant unmet need,” Will McGuire, President and Chief Executive Officer of Second Sight, said in a company news release.
The Orion system will typically consist of a small camera placed on a pair of glasses to capture images, another tool that converts what the camera sees into electrical impulses and an implant that stimulates the user’s brain to interpret and create a perceived image, all of which present in the Argus II.
Initially, Argus II’s implants were clamped onto the patient’s optic nerves. Scientists believe that direct brain implants would be a more useful location, so it directly manipulates how images can be perceived.
The brain implant requires an overnight hospital stay followed by a three- to four-week recovery period before the unit is turned on.
Technically, artificial vision is not precisely healthy eyesight. Instead, the device is designed to bypass a diseased or injured eye through electrodes in the implants, which receives electrical pulses wirelessly.
The brain’s visual cortex then tries to create an image perception-based patterns of light.
Even if patients can see light patterns, they will still have to be heavily trained by medical practitioners to use the prosthetic for basic day-to-day tasks effectively.
Particularly, Orion will be equipped with at least 60 electrode arrays, and each one needs to be individually tuned to provide the most distinct and discernable spot of light possible. This process requires weeks to months of adjustments to perfect.
It’s done over and over for each electrode — we really have to train them not to move their eyes, which is the natural response when you see light,” Nik Talbot, Second Sight’s senior director, implant and R&D, explained.
“As they move their eyes, the brain is expecting to see something different, where in fact, they’re not going to see anything different because they’re taking in everything through the camera. So they have to be taught to keep their eyes looking forward, the same as the camera.”
Nevertheless, if all is done right, Orion will at least allow the blind to see patterns of light that would determine an obstacle or a wall.
Currently, a six-subject early feasibility study of the Orion is currently underway at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles and the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to determine the safety and reliability of the product.
Among the six, only one showed a severe side-effect, which came in the form of a seizure; still, doctors remain positive and said that the entire process can still be considered safe, at least safe enough to warrant clinical trials.
“We remain encouraged by our discussions with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regarding Orion’s regulatory path and are pleased by recent developments with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) regarding reimbursement for products approved via the FDA’s Breakthrough Devices program,” McGuire said.
However, the company still cannot provide a solid date when the product will be available in the market.
The Second Sight team is still working to improve Orion’s system.
“We think we can make some significant improvements just on the software side,” McGuire told Engadget. “And then there are other technologies that are being developed out there that we’re not necessarily developing, but we think to play a key role with artificial divisions. And we’ve got partners who are working on some of these right now.”