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Australian researchers have successfully performed the first implantation of an early prototype bionic eye with 24 electrodes. A blind woman,  Ms Dianne Ashworth, 54, who has serious vision loss due to an inherited condition (retinitis pigmentosa) can now see spots of light after being implanted with an early prototype bionic eye, confirming the potential of the world-first technology Australia’s first-of-its-kind technology.

Ms Ashworth has received what she calls a ‘pre-bionic eye’ implant that enables her to experience some vision. After years of hard work and planning, Ms Ashworth’s implant was switched in July 2012 at the Melbourne Bionics Institute, while researchers held their breaths in the next room, observing via video link.

According to the researchers this is the first time – UPDATE: first time in Australia – when a device successfully implanted behind the retina demonstrates the viability of this scientific approach.

“These results have fulfilled our best expectations, giving us confidence that with further development we can achieve useful vision. Much still needs to be done in using the current implant to ‘build’ images for Ms Ashworth. The next big step will be when we commence implants of the full devices.” said Professor David Penington, Chairman of Bionic Vision.

The implant is only switched on and stimulated after the eye has recovered fully from the effects of surgery. The next phase of this work involves testing various levels of electrical stimulation with Ms Ashworth.

How the bionic eye works

This early prototype consists of a retinal implant with 24 electrodes. A small lead wire extends from the back of the eye to a connector behind the ear. An external system is connected to this unit in the laboratory, allowing researchers to stimulate the implant in a controlled manner in order to study the flashes of light.

Feedback from Ms Ashworth will allow researchers to develop a vision processor so that images can be built using flashes of light. This early prototype does not incorporate an external camera – yet. This is planned for the next stage of development and testing.

Researchers continue development and testing of the wide-view implant with 98 electrodes and the implant with 1024 electrodes. Patient tests are planned for these devices in due course.