There’s some sci-fi-loving bit of all of us that gets a little tingly whenever the word “bionic” appears. Of course, we do have to inform you straight away that nothing in this article is necessarily going to get us any closer to having a functioning Terminator; however, the technology we’re talking about might be one of the best shots we have at giving some people their vision back.
Like so many other recent advancements, bionic eyes owe a great deal of their recent progress to the phenomenon of 3D printing. While the idea – and in some cases, the prosthesis itself – has been around for decades (Joao Antunes, a Portuguese neurosurgeon, is generally credited with implanting the first bionic eye in 1983), 3D printing streamlines the process enormously, reducing build time from weeks or months to just a matter of a few hours.
While there’s still plenty of work and research ahead, that leap forward in manufacturing efficiency clears one of the major hurdles to seeing widespread use of bionic eyes. So with that in mind, let’s get into the details, and give you a quick 101 on the bionic eye.
AMD a Huge Problem for Americans
In a healthy human eye, sight starts with the lens, which focuses light onto the retina, a light-sensitive region to the rear of the eye. The retina acts as a transducer, and converts those light signals into neuronal signals, which are then communicated to the brain via the optic nerve.
As with any piece of human machinery, the above process tends to develop snags as a body ages. Parts of the eye can cloud, degrade, or suffer various illnesses. Retinal disorders can be particularly problematic, given the relative complexity of the organ and the cost and difficulty of treating disorders that affect it. And they’re not just problematic – retinal disorders, chief among them age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and Retinitis Pigmentosa, affect a large chunk of America’s increasingly graying population.
AMD is estimated to affect over 15 million Americans and poses a major risk to the vision of any individual over 50. AMD comes in a couple of different forms, both of which will, if left unchecked, seriously damage the retina, permanently impairing visual acuity. More serious cases can even result in blindness.
Similar to AMD, Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) causes progressive damage to the retina. While RP is still short of being fully understood, it appears that it occurs after organic debris in the eye accumulates, eventually affecting vision. Unlike AMD, RP is also seriously short on effective treatments, and sufferers often find themselves unable to effectively combat the disease.
Bionic Eye to the Rescue
There’s actually a long list of bionic eyes in the works right now, but this article largely focuses on one that comes courtesy of the Bionics Institute and evok3d, a 3D-printing company. While their eye is currently still being tested, it’s shown an enormous amount of promise and, as mentioned above, may be among the first options to fully take advantage of 3D-printing technology.
Like many bionic eyes currently in development, BI’s eye partly relies on existing organs in the human eye to function. They bionic eye itself consists of a camera, a microchip, and a collection of electrodes. Put together, they help supplement or even replace a dysfunctional visual system. The camera works to collect light, much as a lens would in a healthy eye. That information is then communicated to the microchip, which in turn relays it to existing retinal cells, at which point the body’s natural visual processing system takes over.
In theory, BI’s eye has some points in common with the Argus II retinal prosthesis, the first commerical bionic eye available on the US market. The Argus II also relies on the pairing of an external camera and implanted processor to relay information to surviving retinal cells in a patient’s eye. Originally designed for RP sufferers, Argus implants have proven to be safe, reliable, and relatively effective.
The system makes sense in theory and has largely been borne out in practice. It’s important to note that while the Argus (and similar systems, including BI’s prototypes) do restore some vision, they’re not exactly a quick path to 20/20 vision. Instead, users generally perceive only blobs of light and dark and are still considered legally blind. However, even with these shortcomings, a prosthesis can make an enormous impact on a patient’s life, even allowing fully blind individuals to move about unassisted.
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Bionic Institute’s Take on Things
If the actual function of BI’s implant isn’t exactly groundbreaking, then their manufacturing process certainly is. While the Argus is commercially available, it’s a bit of a long shot to say that it’s commercially available at all. In 2013, getting the implant cost a hefty $100,000, largely thanks to the time and labor required to produce even one bionic eye. As Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the Bionics Institute Chris Williams has said:
We can now get a prototype out in four hours using the ProJet 1200 [the 3D printer used by the team]. Before 3D printing it would take us weeks or months. We found it takes 20 iterations to reach an upgrade, in terms of going through iterations, the machine justified itself in the first week.
That transition may be part of what eventually makes widespread use of high-quality bionic eyes possible. For now, there’s more work and more research ahead, but stay tuned, you may be seeing bionics an awful lot earlier than you might think.