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The Revolutionary Bionic Eye Is Changing a Woman’s Life

Rhian Lewis, a 49 year old woman who has suffered from retinitis pigmentosa an inherited disorder since she was five. The condition causes gradual deterioration of the light-detecting cells within the eye; this can eventually lead to blindness. One in 3,000 people in the UK have the disease, for which there is no cure.

Rhian has marked a significant moment in history by being the first person fitted with a ‘bionic eye’. Mrs Lewis was given a retinal implant as part of an ongoing trail at the Oxford’s John Radcliffe hospital. Surgeons at the Oxford Eye Hospital have implanted a chip that will help her see. She is completely blind in her right eye and has virtually no vision in her left.

Rhian has this surgery in June last year; the operation lasted around 6-8 hours. During the follow up tests it became clear that she could see for the first time in 16 years. She was asked to tell the time and once she realised the time she said ‘It felt like Christmas Day!’

The implant is an amazing piece of technology which sends pulsed electrical signals to the nerve cells, from the outside it just looks like a hearing aid. The brain eventually learns to convert the flashing images into meaningful shapes and objects, this technology has the power to transform lives.

When the device is first switched on, patients see flashes of light, but over a few weeks the brain learns to convert those flashes into meaningful shapes and objects.

The images can be black and white and grainy but still have the power to transform lives. This specific bionic eye is being tested as a treatment for retinitis pigmentosa since 2012. Rhian is the first patient to be fitted with the device outside Germany.

The lead researcher at Oxford, Professor Robert MacLaren, said “It’s an amazing process because what Rhian and others are trying to do is reactivate a part of the brain that hasn’t been doing anything for the last 10 years or so,” he said. “There is a lot of rehabilitation because basically they are learning to see again.”

A wireless hand held power supply means that Rhian can adjust the contrast and frequency to suit her needs and in different conditions as she is continuing her practise and regaining her confidence and independence.

If the rest of Prof Robert MacLaren’s trial is successful the team hopes that one day the implant could be available on the NHS. It could also be applied to other eye diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration.

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