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Doctors have restored sight to the blind by sending video images directly to the brain.
This development has offered hope to millions of patients as five men and one woman have regained vision after years of ‘living in the dark’.
They had electrode chips planted in the visual cortex at the back of
their skulls that picked up images from a tiny video camera mounted in a pair of glasses.
Their eyes were bypassed completely.
One of the participants, Benjamin James Spencer, who went blind aged nine, described his joy at seeing his wife and three daughters for the first time. ‘It is awe inspiring to see so much beauty,’ the 35-year-
old told the Daily Mail last night.
‘I could see the roundness of my
wife’s face, the shape of her body. ‘I could see my kids running up to give me a hug. It is not perfect vision – it is like grainy 1980s surveillance video footage. It may not be full vision yet, but it’s something.’
Mr Spencer continued by describing how, when he
was nine years old, his world went black.
‘It was September 18, 1992, a week after my birthday,’ he said. ‘I was at school leaving a class and in the time it took me to walk 50ft everything disappeared.
‘At first it started to go foggy and
then a few paces later it was just
‘I panicked and started screaming and kind of went into shock.
Everything after that is pretty
In the coming days specialists at a hospital near his home in Texas
broke the news that he would never see again.
‘I was told this was going to be my future. I was classed as lacking 100 per cent light perception. I was blind,’ he said.
Mr Spencer had paediatric glaucoma, a rare condition caused by a defect in the eye’s drainage system.
It had been incurable but scientists have now managed to bypass the broken link by sending images directly to the visual cortex, the
part of the brain responsible for
Mr Spencer lives in the city of
Pearland, near Houston, with his
wife Jeanette, 42, and daughters
Abigail, 15, Melissa, 13, and Jane,
ten. In April 2018, he became one of just six people to have a 60-
electrode panel implanted in the
back of his brain. Surgeons at Baylor Medical College in Houston spent two hours cutting a window in his skull, placing the electrode array on the surface of
the brain, and stitching it up again.
They then spent six months
‘mapping’ his visual field.
This involved sending computer
signals to the stimulation panel in his head to synchronise his brain to the real world – in effect teaching his visual cortex to process images again.
Eventually, in October, the device
was wirelessly connected to a tiny video camera, mounted in a pair of glasses, and switched on. He saw his wife and three children for the very
‘It was an incredible moment,’ he
told the Daily Mail. ‘It was very
Describing catching a glimpse of the sun through the window, he said:
‘Such a tiny thing is normal for
people who have vision. But I had not seen the sun since I was nine years old. I had felt its heat, but actually seeing it was incredible.
After 25 and a half years of living in the dark, it is awe inspiring to see so much beauty.’
In January, after months of
hospital testing, he was allowed to take the device home. The terms of the clinical trial means he can only switch it on for three hours a day, but he makes the most of it. ‘I usually use it for 45 minutes at a time and space it out,’ he said. ‘If I want to go to the store or if one of my kids has a performance. ‘It is not perfect vision – it is like grainy 1980s surveillance video
footage,’ he said.
‘I can see silhouettes, I can see
light and shade, I can guess at
colours. It may not be full vision
yet, but it’s something.
‘I can go to the store, I can walk
without my cane, I can sort my dark laundry from the whites, I can see a crack in the sidewalk coming up. I could see a sign sticking out – but I couldn’t read what it said.’
Even when completely blind, Mr
Spencer learnt to thrive
He finished school, went to college and earned a masters in business,
focusing on international trade. He worked for a few years in import- export and then set up his own tax business.
‘I was determined to be an
independent person,’ he said. ‘There is always a way around
whatever the world throws at you.
‘Luckily I had people around me who said you can allow this to define you, or you can define life. But that being said, everything was a stepping stone. I learned that life was about adaptation.’
British experts described the
breakthrough in the United States as a ‘paradigm shift’ in the
treatment of the blind.
Patients who have benefited from the Orion wireless technology include those who have lost their sight due to glaucoma, trauma,
infections, autoimmune diseases and nerve problems.
But the surgeons – from Baylor
Medical College in Texas and the
University of California Los Angeles
– believe they can eventually help
anyone who has lost their sight.
They are unsure, however, whether it could help people born blind – because the visual cortex would never have learnt to process images.
They plan to implant 30 more devices over the next few months and if the results continue to be positive expect the technology to become widely available within three years.
Alex Shortt, a University College
London lecturer and surgeon at
Optegra Eye Hospital in the capital, said:
‘This, to my mind, is a massive breakthrough, an amazing advance and it is very exciting.
‘Previously all attempts to create a “bionic eye” focused on implanting into the eye itself. It required you to have a working eye, a working optic nerve.
‘By bypassing the eye completely
you open the potential up to many, many more people.
‘This is a complete paradigm shift for treating people with complete blindness. It is a real message of hope.’
Source: Daily Mail
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