FDA Approves Device that Offers Vision to Blind

First Posted: Feb 15, 2013 10:09 AM EST

The blind may be getting the opportunity to see again. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new technology this week that gives limited vision to people who are blind.

Called the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System or the "artificial retina," the device can give only limited vision to the blind. In particular, it focuses on patients who suffer from a genetic eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which affects 100,000 Americans and causes a gradual deterioration of the eyes' photoreceptor cells. In particular, they suffer damage to the light-sensitive cells of the retina and slowly lose side vision, then night vision and lastly, central vision.

So how does this new device work exactly? The device combines a high-quality video camera, digital processing equipment and an implant capable of stimulating the optic nerves of even severely damaged patients. The video camera is attached to eyeglasses that transmit images to a sheet of electrode sensors that have been sewn into the patient's eye. These sensors then transmit those signals to the brain through the optic nerve. While it doesn't allow for color, it does allow patients to see images and detect movement.

Patients who have already used this device have said that they were able to see crosswalk lines on the street, letters on a monitor screen and silhouettes of people.

Currently, though the FDA is restricting the approval of this device to people aged 25 years and older. In addition, the Argus II can only be used for fewer than 4,000 patients a year. Patients must be willing to receive the recommended follow-up, device fitting and visual rehabilitation, as well. The device itself doesn't come cheaply, either. It costs about $100,000 with an additional $16,000 for the operation.

"It's a start, it's a beginning," said Mark Fromer, an ophthalmologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in an interview with Health Day. "It's going to be exciting for people who get this device who are currently just seeing light or dark, [they] will see shapes and that will be life-altering for them."

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