An implant attached to the retinas of people blinded by Retinitis Pigmentosa is allowing them to see, in many cases, for the first time in years. The implant, approved for use in the United States on February 14, is part of a technology called Argus II which creates visual signals with stimuli sent directly from the implant to the brain. Natalie Brunell reports.
==UPDATING WITH NEW LEAD TO INCLUDE NEWS OF UNITED STATES APPROVAL OF IMPLANT IN THE UNITED STATES== He is a Parisian man, a medical volunteer, and so cannot be identified. But he's happy to talk about the fact that, despite being blind, he can now see. SOUNDBITE: PATIENT WHO HAS HAD RETINAL IMPLANT SURGERY, NAME WITHHELD, SAYING: "It's very exciting to see that you can do things, even though they may be very minor things, which would have been completely impossible before." As one of 50 volunteers testing a new retinal prosthesis, the man can sort colors for the first time in years…but that, according to researchers, is just the first stage of a process that could soon allow him to read Braille with his eyes rather than his fingers and, like other volunteers, basic written words. The man reading is another volunteer, and these side-by-side images offer a glimpse into what he can see through the special glasses he is wearing. The device is called the Argus II, and it was developed by the American company Second Sight based in Sylmar, California. Thomas Lauritzen is a senior research scientist there and helped author the study that uses the technology to stream Braille patterns onto the retinas of blind patients. SOUNDBITE: THOMAS LAURITZEN, SENIOR RESEARCH SCIENTIST AT SECOND SIGHT IN SYLMAR, CA SAYING: "We simply can look at a letter, a regular letter, and translate it into Braille. And that's something we can do in this filter, external computer that we have." The technology works like this: you have a pair of glasses with a video camera located in the center, which records what the patient is looking at. This signal is then sent into a portable computer that can be worn on a belt or on a shoulder strap. The computer filters and down-samples the image into one that can then be sent wirelessly to the prosthetic that sits in the eye. Letters appear as dots in a three-by-two grid up to four letters at a time. SOUNDBITE: THOMAS LAURITZEN, SENIOR RESEARCH SCIENTIST AT SECOND SIGHT IN SYLMAR, CA SAYING: "The process of reading regular letters we can basically just speed up using this Braille technique. Imagine basically if you haven't been able to see anything to be able to see some aspects." SOUNDBITE: PATIENT WHO HAS HAD RETINAL IMPLANT SURGERY, NAME WITHHELD, SAYING "Being able to see leaves with this system is very significant, it's very significant. You really do get the sense that there's something palpable there." The Parisian man had his implant fitted nearly three and a half years ago and has noticed steady improvement ever since. He said it hasn't caused him pain or discomfort, which he finds remarkable. Almost as remarkable as being able to see even the simplest things once again. --