Bionic eyes & Aston's James Wolffsohn
Last night's news was full of the story of Miikka Terho detecting objects, including letters and a clockface, despite his blindness. Opthalmologist Professor Eberhart Zrenner and his team at the University of Tuebingen in Germany have implanted an electronic chip under his macula, part of his non-functioning retina. This chip sends messages to the visual cortex in his brain.
Aston University's Professor James Wolffsohn is an optometrist, so researches what goes on at the front of our eyes, the lens and the muscles. He, too, talks of bionic eyes -- and some that are already part of clinical practice.
In The New Optimists, James describes new kinds of lens which can be inserted into a patient's eye. The focal length of some of these lens (i.e. the means to see clearly) are controlled by the patient . . . bionic eyes.
What James is saying is a radical departure from the currently routine eye examination and prescription. He talks of IOL (intracoluar lens, i.e. a lens actually in the eye).
We now have evidence, he explains, that the ciliary muscle which controls eye focus remains active throughout our life. So the decline in our ability to focus (which leads to old lags such as myself having to wear reading glasses or bi- or varifocals) comes from a hardening of our lens, not poor muscular function. He says:
Consequently, attempts have been made to design IOLs that will restore eye focus. The first generation of these 'bionic' lenses, already available on the market, are designed to move forward in the eye in response to eye muscles on their hinges. Our research and that of other groups shows that this approach restores limited eye focus and the effects decrease with time. Designs currently being trialled include dual IOLs on springs that move apart with attempted eye focus and injectable IOLs that replace the hardened crystalline [natural] lens following cataract removal.
Springs? Hinges? In your eye? Controlled by your own muscles?
I find it hard to imagine my eyes being bionic in this way. Yet as a little child, I couldn't begin to imagine contact lenses let alone a blind man with an implant that enables him to see.
By chance, I had an appointment yesterday at James' workplace, Aston's Optometry Clinic. There I was prescribed high-tech very precise lenses. They used all sorts of fancy gear to find out what I could and couldn't see naturally. But in essence, they carried out similar experiments as my first optician did decades ago.
Bionic lenses are something radically different. Not just better diagnosis, not just better lens manufacture. But something utterly different. Implanted high technology controlled by the patient's natural systems.
Such lenses could perhaps be seen as cosmetic, as contact lenses often are. But as James says
Despite 'bionic" IOL implants perhaps being seen as of only 'cosmetic' advantage in the developed world, in developing countries where affordable spectacles are often ahrd to come by, they could restore livelihoods.
I don't think of my trip to the Optometry Clinic as being a significant factor in earning my crust. But James is absolutely right. It is. Without high-tech high-precision lenses in my specs, I couldn't drive a car or a bike, or see who's who more than a few feet away, or run for a bus or write this blogpost . . .
note: A version of this article was first published at www.newoptimists.com.
The groundbreaking paper about Professor Zrenner's work with Miikka Terho is here in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B