Ever thought about what it might be like to have a bionic eye? Surgeons at the University of Michigan Health System have.

On Jan. 16 and 22, UMHS retina surgeons performed the first-ever surgeries that implanted artificial retinas into the eyes of patients with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that eventually causes blindness.

Formally named the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, the bionic eye device was developed by California-based Second Sight Medical Products, Inc. Thiran Jayasundera and David N. Zacks, professors of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the University’s Kellogg Eye Center, are the first surgeons to implant the device since it gained approval from the Food and Drug Administration last year.

UMHS has been chosen as one of 12 centers nationally to offer the retinal prosthesis to patients. Jayasundera said UMHS contacted Second Sight and requested access to the product. The company then visited UMHS to complete a site inspection.

“We wanted to offer this to our patients because we see a lot of patients with advanced pigmentosa,” Jayasundera said. “We wanted our patients in Michigan to be able to have access to this technology.”

Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited disease that causes blindness through a gradual loss of light-sensitive retinal cells. Jayasundera said the retinal prosthesis works wirelessly through a camera connected to electrodes. The electrodes stimulate remaining retinal nerve fibers, causing the perception of light in the brain.

“You’re wearing a video camera on your glasses,” Jayusundera said. “That video camera basically sends the information into a video processing unit that you wear on a belt. The image is converted into signals that wirelessly transmit it to this device that we implant on the retina.”

After the surgery, patients undergo one to three months of training to adapt to their new vision. Jayasundera said this training helps the brain learn to sort through the many impulses that are stimulated when recipients turn their head in different directions.

Though the retinal prosthesis does not provide 20/20 vision, it creates an abstract, rudimentary vision that permits patients to make out figures and light. Although the bionic eye does not offer a full cure, Jayasundera said it is a step in the right direction.

“This is already the Argus II,” Jayasundera said. “In time there will be more development of these types of devices.”

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