Bionic Eyes : Science Fiction Has Become Fact

Bionic eyes— also referred to as cybernetic eyes— are closer than you think! 

While I was researching this post, I tweeted a quick poll. Even with a disappointingly small sample size, my results were unanimous.

THE EYES HAVE IT

If you could only keep one of your five senses, which one would you choose?

To put it another way, which is your favorite of the five senses? Which sense would you want enhanced? 

SIGHT! Let’s take a look at that!

Most important sense : a poll
Unanimous decision
0 %
People polled: Favorite sense is sight

EYES ARE THE WINDOW TO THE SOUL

Throughout history, in art, culture, music, (ironic since music is a hearing-based discipline) eyes were considered a precious gift. Eyes unveil the world to our consciousness. Others read our eyes to see our thoughts. 

Ancient cultures used eyes in art. From amulets for protection to giving the evil eye with a curse, to decoration, the eyes had everyone’s attention.

Eyes by Louise Bourgeois
courtesy Met Museum

I thought that, ‘eyes are the window of the soul’ was written by Shakespeare, but it’s not! It’s considered a traditional proverb.

Chagall Windows Art Institute of Chicago
Chagall Windows at the Art Institute of Chicago. Worth the trip!

THE EYE IS THE MOST DOMINANT SENSING ORGAN

It’s no wonder that everyone who voted, choose vision. Sight is a human’s dominant sense. In fact, studies show that our brains acquire more than 80% of information about our surroundings via our eyes. 

The eye is a complicated organ. It takes a stimulus, light, which is made of electromagnetic waves that travel at 186,000 miles per second (FAST), and converts the light to usable information in our brains. 

The visible spectrum of light is quite narrow too. For more about the light spectrum and a chart, read here.

CYBERNETIC EYE

In the Harry Potter series, a wizard named Mad Eye Mooney lost one eye when battling death eaters, and was given a prosthetic eye. His eye could swivel around like a chameleon, see through walls and even invisibility cloaks. (For more on the magic of invisibility, I have a post here!)

Prosthetic Eye Mad Eye Moody
I think wizards could do a better job with the aesthetics..

What about replacing an eye, for real, not in an imaginary land of wizards?

THE TERMS CYBERNETIC EYES AND BIONIC EYES ARE INTERCHANGABLE

Cybernetic eye Susan Berk Koch
The cyber tech is closer than you think!

ARTIFICIAL VISION

The idea of artificial vision began over two centuries ago in 1752 with the writings of Benjamin Franklin, who postulated to the Royal Society of London that sight and hearing could be restored with the use of electricity.

Franklin seemed quite preoccupied with electricity.

Lightning and electricity and eyes
Gorgeous lightning
Ben-Franklin-Kite
Ben Franklin flying his kite in a lightning storm

In case you’re wondering, Franklin ‘flying a kite with a key in a lightning storm‘ is a myth. This STEM experiment works perfectly to conduct electricity, but the current produced would have killed him. (mythbusters episode if you want to take a gander)

RESTORING VISION WITH ELECTRICAL STIMULATION

The idea caught on.

Perhaps after reading Benjamin Franklin’s theory, a French scientist named Charles Leroy decided to investigate. In 1755, he strapped some poor guy up with wires and and zapped him with electricity. The blind volunteer reported seeing ‘visual disturbances.’ 

I just find it disturbing!

 

Blind person with wire around his head to stimulate sight
Annu. Rev. Biomed. Eng. 2007. 9:527-565 doi: 10.1146/annurev.bioeng.9.061206.133100 Noninvasive Human Brain Stimulation Wagner, Valero-Cabre, and Pascual-Leone

Flash forward (intentional pun) to 1970. 

Blind people were implanted with electrical stimulators. Subjects did see flashes of light!

But the brain could not interpret the signals.  Their hair started on fire. It was a valiant attempt but this tech was in its infancy.

Electronic retinal implants
Early attempts at restoring vision

EYE PROSTHETICS ARE MECHANICAL

It would be so cool if  implants looked like this AND functioned.

Occular implant science fiction
Still science fiction

Eye prosthetics have come a long way! 3-D printing is making some realistic replacements, down to the intricate blood vessels.

 

They are for aesthetics only, with no function. They are considered a replacement for when someone has lost an eye due to disease, trauma, or disfigurement.

 

These replacements are not cybernetic (bionic).

 

Prosthetic eye, not science fiction

EYE ANATOMY AND FUNCTION

Here’s a quick synopsis of the eye and how it works. It sounds like magic!

eye anatomy author website
Anatomy of a human eye

Light enters through the pupil rushing in at 186,000 miles per second.

The iris, or colored portion of our eyes, controls how much light enters.

Next, light passes through the lens. The lens works together with the cornea to focus light correctly on the retina.

This is where glasses come in, adjusting the focus of the light.

When light hits the retina (a light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eye), special cells called photoreceptors turn the light waves into electrical signals.

The retina is made up of approximately 131 million photoreceptors. These are the rods and cones you probably learned about in school. 


Science Magic!

These electrical signals travel from the retina through the optic nerve to the brain. The brain turns the signals into the images we see.

More science magic.

With so many visually impaired people, researchers continue their work to cure blindness! 

In 2011, the number of visually impaired people is ~ 285 million. 39 million are blind. (ouch)

We can replace livers, lungs, and hearts. Remove cataracts and replace them with new lenses. But what about an entire eye?

RETINAL IMPLANTS OR BIONIC EYES AKA CYBERNETIC EYES

The only commercially available and approved bionic (cybernetic) eyes –in actuality– are retinal implants. That term doesn’t sound as cool but it IS cool! 

In brief below…

Argus® II bionic eye
Developed to restore vision lost due to the lack of sensitivity of photoreceptors to light rays.
An eyeglass mounted camera and an implanted retinal stimulator
This implant has been nicknamed 'bionic eye'
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Alpha-AMS
No camera needed. Uses a wireless chip.
Directly senses intra ocular light. Converts it to electrical energy using an amplifier and contrast unit
Not yet approved for commercial use
The implant includes a handheld component about the size of a cellphone
© 2017 Stingl, Schippert, Bartz-Schmidt, Besch, Cottriall, Edwards, Gekeler, Greppmaier, Kiel, Koitschev, Kühlewein, MacLaren, Ramsden, Roider, Rothermel, Sachs, Schröder, Tode, Troelenberg and Zrenner.
Further reading
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Bionic eye implants seem ideal for individuals who aren’t congenitally blind but sustained severe vision loss due to degenerative diseases.

The patient sees flashes of light, but their brain must still learn to decipher their meaning ‒ a process that could take approximately six months.

BIONIC EYES : SCIENCE FICTION BECOMING FACT

Bionic Eyes : Science Fiction Will Become Fact
This looks cooler but fact follows fiction

Restoring sight by feeding signals directly to the brain is ambitious.  We have pacemakers to regulate our hearts and cochlear implants (since 1961!) for hearing. Why not our dominant sense?

Am I sensationalizing this? If you’re vision impaired, nope. Is a bionic eye without cameras or glasses beyond our reach?

One of the difficulties fabricating a hands-free prosthetic eye–as opposed to a retinal implant–is the shape of the retina.

New research is aimed to change that. Scientists used a curved, aluminum oxide membrane embedded with nanosized sensors made of perovskite.  

PERVOSKITE

Pervoskite structure
Molecule of pervoskite

Pervoskite is a material with a 3-D crystal structure that surrounds an ion with light absorbing properties. Different ions could be interspersed between the crystals to absorb different wavelengths of light.

This material has practical applications in solar cells, lasers, high-temperature superconductivity. Pervoskite is now synthesized in labs, but it is an actual mineral that was discovered in 1839. 

I’m cheering them on! 

Meanwhile, the above retinal implants jack into the brain and do provide rudimentary vision. It’s a start!  

Maybe someday soon, the vision-impaired will have bionic eyes that enable them to see color and smell the flowers, or watch a lovely sunset while listening to the waves. And taste chocolate with their eyes first

Bionic eyes are out there! This amazing tech could change the lives of millions of visually-impaired people all over the world!

Thoughts?

Would you be willing to wear weird glasses or carry a battery-pack to restore your vision?  

DON'T MISS OUT ON THE SCIENCE!

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66 thoughts on “Bionic Eyes : Science Fiction Has Become Fact”

  1. Wow! This is such a cool and informative post! I didn’t know bionic eyes were really becoming a thing. I think I need some seeing as how my vision worsens every year when I go to the eye doctor lol

    Reply
  2. Wow, another fact-filled and fun post – I’ve learned so much about eyes that I didn’t know! Sight is the one sense I’d really hate to lose, I can’t imagine not being able to see my world and appreciate my surroundings. Fab post, Sue, thank you! Lisa

    Reply
  3. Very informative post! I’m learning more about science with your blog. More often we take for granted our eyesight and as of this time its not that easy to replace. We should take care of it more, see an eye doctor to make sure our eyes don’t get so much stress which leads to damage.

    Reply
  4. Fascinating! As I’ve started to need reading glasses for more and more things I’m more conscious of and appreciative of sight all the time! And apparently not alone there as your vote shows! Thanks for another informative, fascinating article!

    Reply
  5. I’m very interested to see if bionic eyes will be the first to revolutionize how we view our own eyes or the eyeballs we can harvest from human-animal hybrids. Either way, both seem like really good options and interesting topics.

    Reply
  6. This was a fascinating post! So good to have this much information put together. To be honest, I think everyone would be glad to wear anything if it could give them back any of their senses. Vision is the obviously considered the most valuable one… that is until, God forbid, we lose any of the others. I’m so glad we have scientists working not only on bionic eyes but also bionic arms, legs, systems to support body weight for those with spinal injuries… technology is amazing!

    Reply
  7. There was so much to discover here, thanks for sharing! I am fascinated by the idea of ‘cyborgs’ and technological enhancements for the human body, so it was interesting to dive into some of the history and context of this 🙂

    Reply
  8. Modern medicine is so amazing ! Thank you for always sharing interesting information ! I’m lucky enough to not have any eyesight problems but If I did, it’s reassuring to know so many cool advancements are beginning to happen !

    Reply

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