A team of German researchers, led by Dr. Eberhart Zrenner, have successfully implanted the first microchips in the retinas of blind patients, restoring vision believed to be lost forever. So far, a total of 11 patients have received the retinal implant, with roughly 50% reporting significant improvement in their vision.
The most dramatic improvement was in a patient by the name of Miikka. Here is a description of his vision pre-implant:
“At the age of 18, he became night blind, making it very difficult for him to see in low light although he could see well enough to pass his driving test. At 30, he started having problems recognising faces and reading. At 38, he could no longer read at all and by 44, he could only sense the direction of bright light, relying on a cane to get around.”
And now, after:
“He was the last to be operated on and his chip was implanted directly within the fovea, the area responsible for our sharpest central vision. His performance was excellent. With no training, he could detect several subtly different shapes, a variety of common objects, clock faces, slightly different shades of gray and letters displayed on a screen. He could even read his own name, written in large white letters, and distinguish it from the incorrectly spelled Mika.”
As an interesting side-note, the patients who received the implant actually gained an entirely new part of their vision: due to the sensitivity of the chip that receives light for them, they are now able to see infrared light- something no human is naturally capable of. This brings up a point that will likely be one of the most controversial in the field of prosthetics (visual or otherwise)- is there a difference in how we view restoring function that was lost vs. gaining function that was never present in the first place? In layman’s terms: what happens when we’re not giving sight to the blind, but instead, creating superhumans?