The FDA-approved cyborg implant that lets the blind see again

While bulky and clumsy now, the Argus II vision system promises a very bright future

A new advanced vision system may mean Fido can go back to cuddling.
(Image credit: Thinkstock)

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a system combining a special pair of glasses with an artificial retina that helps people impaired with a certain kind of blindness see again. While their vision will still be far from normal, those afflicted with severe retinitis pigmentosa — a disease that affects 100,000 people nationwide — will be able to "detect crosswalks on the street, burners on a stove, the presence of people or cars, and sometimes even oversized numbers or letters," according to The New York Times. In other words, they'll be able to live something a little closer to a normal, independent life.

The advanced vision system, called Argus II, requires a sheet of electrodes to be surgically implanted inside a patient's eye, specifically, the back of the eyeball where the damaged retina is located. Afterward, patients are given a special pair of eyeglasses outfitted with a camera and a portable video processor. Working together, "these elements together allow visual signals to bypass the damaged portion of the retina and to be transmitted to the brain," says The Times.

What do these people see, exactly? The "outlines and boundaries of objects," especially when there's plenty of contrast. The technology looks to be improving at a rapid pace, too: While the first version of the implant contained just 16 electrodes, the new FDA-approved version contains 60.

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It almost goes without saying that the Argus II won't come cheap. Designed by Second Sight Medical Products, the entire system is estimated to cost $150,000, not including surgery and the training sessions necessary to use the device. Second Sight, however, says it's optimistic that most insurance providers will cover it. And eventually, the hope is that Argus will lead to full-blown prosthetics for the blind.

Just imagine: Contact lenses in lieu of glasses. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of electrodes instead of a few dozen as the hardware shrinks and gets refined. The Argus II might be bulky and clumsy-looking now. But the future, particularly for the afflicated, is starting to look unusually bright.

(Via The New York Times)

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Chris Gayomali is the science and technology editor for Previously, he was a tech reporter at TIME. His work has also appeared in Men's Journal, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among other places. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.