England’s National Health Service is planning to pay for 10 patients to receive a “bionic eye” implant, able to restore some sight to people who have been blind for years. Funding of these implants by the NHS could open the door for the technology to become more widely adopted. Called the Argus II, the implant uses a camera mounted in glasses to sends signals to a computer that connects directly to the nerves responsible for sight. Data from the computer is sent wirelessly to the eye implant. The implant contains an electrode which emits a pulse that bypasses the damaged receptors of the retina.  The pulses stimulate cells that send information along the optic nerve. The patient’s brain perceives patterns of light and dark, which they can then learn to interpret.

The patients who are receiving the implant can currently only differentiate daylight and darkness. The implant will extend this capability so they can perceive movement.

Keith Hayman, one of the patients who received the implant in trials, is 68, and has been registered blind since 1981. Diagnosed in his 20s with retinitis pigmentosa, he was forced to give up his work as a butcher.

“Having spent half my life in darkness, I can now tell when my grandchildren run towards me and make out lights twinkling on Christmas trees. I would be talking to a friend, who might have walked off and I couldn’t tell and kept talking to myself. This doesn’t happen anymore, because I can tell when they have gone.”

The ten patients to have their implant funded by the NHS will have surgery at Manchester or Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. Their cases will be followed to provide data on their progress, and the effect the bionic eye has on their lives. If this data yields promising results, the treatment will likely become more common in the future.

Dr. Jonathan Fielden, director of specialized commissioning at NHS England, said:

“This highly innovative NHS-funded procedure shows real promise and could change lives. The NHS has given the world medical innovations ranging from modern cataract surgery to new vaccines and hip replacements. Now once again the NHS is at the forefront of harnessing ground-breaking science for the benefit of patients in this country.”

So far doctors have said that there has been no success yet in treating blindness with gene or stem cell therapies, making the bionic eye the only option to restore a degree of sight to patients.

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