Anyone who saw HBO’s interview, hosted by James Gandolfini, of soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan had to feel the utmost of empathy and compassion for fellow Americans who had given so much to their country. One soldier was completely blind. While the left eye was so damaged that he couldn’t have a prosthetic, the other had been replaced by a special prosthetic eye containing the diamonds from his wedding ring. This prosthetic did not, however, restore his vision. Like with so many wounded soldiers, the prosthetic merely mimicked what he had lost; it did not functionally restore it. In the August 7 edition of Nature, Drs. Heung Ko, John Rogers, Yonggang Huang and other scientists published the first report of a flexible “electronic eye” camera “based on…silicon.”
In the past, any camera-type device was planar, unable to curve to the extreme that a human eye does. However, by placing “joints” between incredibly small photodetectors (cameras), an electronic eye system was able to be developed that was as small as the human eye with the same curvature. To see several pictures as well as videos of the creators of this technology, you can go to the National Science Foundation website here.
A Glimpse of Hope
According to Rogers, “several groups around the world are exploring the possibility of implanted detector arrays for restoring eyesight.” Unfortunately, Rogers notes that “biointerface issues” would need to be solved before someone could use these electronic eyes to restore their sight. These issues are what many groups are working to resolve via “retinal implants.” Rogers also states that “the use of this technology to allow people to see again is certainly some years into the future.” However, if scientists could find a way to link an electronic eye such as this to the brain, it may function similar to the human eye, allowing blinded soldiers and civilians alike the opportunity to regain something that they have lost. Even more intriguing is the idea that such “e-eyes” could do more than simply give the brain visual cues regarding its surroundings. They could, in the distant future, provide information on the distance to a target, heat signatures or a variety of measurements that could be useful for military applications.
Approximately 30,000 American troops have been wounded in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Of those, 1,100 have had operations to repair their eyes. According to the Army, eye damage in soldiers has increased at almost twice the rate of amputations. Of those, dozens are permanently blinded. Even worse, only 10 centers are available through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in the U.S. for blinded soldiers. With room for only 241 patients at each center, it takes almost three months to enter the program, according to USA Today. Fortunately, there are plans to introduce three more centers for blinded veterans but not until 2010. The VA’s director of ophthalmology, James Orcutt, stated in that same publication that the VA intends to spend $40 million to build 55 outpatient clinics in the U.S. This will give soldiers who are visually impaired the chance to learn to operate with reduced or no vision.
Interestingly, the VA is part of two clinical trials testing the same type of silicon photoelectric chips that Rogers and his group have designed, although practical use of these types of eye replacements is still in the distant future. Trials such as these will not only help wounded soldiers but will also change the lives of the approximate 10 million civilians in the U.S. who are either visually impaired or completely blind, with 1.3 million legally blind. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, every seven minutes another person is visually impaired. The World Health Organization believes there are 44 million people globally who suffer from complete blindness while 180 million are visually impaired. Not all of these people have undergone traumatic events, however. Many have become visually impaired due do glaucoma, diabetes, cataracts and macular degeneration. In 2003, the National Eye Institute of America and two other private research organizations spent $660 million on research for blindness prevention and rescue. Add to this the financial strain that is added to individual victims of this, which for some can be thousands of dollars annually, and the financial impact in the U.S. and around the world becomes clear.
Whether the “e-eye” becomes available next week or in 10 years, it is certainly a welcome step forward in research on blindness. As such research progresses and scientists learn to integrate electronic eyes into the brain to restore vision, we become closer to the day when blindness could, potentially, be eradicated all together.