Australia on Tuesday unveiled a prototype bionic eye designed to restore sight to those with failing vision which supporters hope could be the biggest breakthrough since the Braille alphabet.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose government committed 42 million dollars (almost 39 million US) to the project, said the device could be “one of the most important medical advances we see in our lifetime”.
“The bionic eye project will keep Australia at the forefront of bionic research and commercialisation and has the potential to restore sight to thousands of people in Australia and across the world,” he said.
The device, part of which is surgically implanted in the eye, is designed for patients suffering from degenerative vision loss caused by the genetic condition retinitis pigmentosa or age-related macular degeneration.
It consists of a miniature camera, mounted on glasses, that captures images and sends them to a processor the wearer keeps in their pocket.
The processor then transmits a signal wirelessly to a unit implanted in the eye which will directly stimulate surviving neurons in the retina, signalling an image to the brain.
Those using the bionic eye will not have perfect vision restored, but it is hoped they will be able to perceive points of light in their field of vision which the brain can then reconstruct into an image.
Research director of Bionic Vision Australia, the university and research institute partnership which has produced the prototype, Professor Anthony Burkitt said the device could change people’s lives.
“We anticipate that this retinal implant will provide users with increased mobility and independence, and that future versions of the implant will eventually allow recipients to recognise faces and read large print,” he said.
Kevin Murfitt, chairman of the country’s biggest service for the blind and visually impaired Vision Australia, said the bionic eye “will be the next big remarkable invention”.
“This is truly a revolution and will be the biggest thing in terms of blindness and low vision since Louis Braille invented the Braille alphabet over 200 years ago,” he told ABC radio.
The bionic eye is undergoing tests ahead of the first human implant in 2013.