'Bionic Eye' Helps Man See After Decade of Impaired Vision

Ray Flynn has a special implant in one eye to help him see more clearly.

— -- After nearly a decade of being partially blind, Ray Flynn is now getting some of his central sight back thanks to a new “bionic eye.”

Flynn is taking part in a study that helps people with dry macular degeneration regain partial sight. The chronic disease causes vision loss at the center of the eye as a part of the retina called the macula becomes damaged with age and there is no treatment for "dry" version of the disease. (There is a treatment available for the "wet" version of the disease.) Advanced macular degeneration patients often rely purely on peripheral vision as the center of their sight is basically completely blurred.

At the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital doctors are using a new “bionic eye” implant in an attempt to give Flynn and other macular degeneration patients some of their center vision again.

“I can’t use the cash machine, I’d like to be able to go shopping,” Flynn told the BBC News shortly before his surgery.

Called the Argus II “bionic eye,” the implant was created by Second Sight Medical Products and relies on an implant behind the retina to wirelessly communicate with a camera worn by the patient.

After the small chip is implanted behind the eye, the patient can wear special glasses outfitted with a camera. The glasses wirelessly transmit data to the chip which stimulates retina cells and triggers the brain.

“What we’re doing with Ray is try to elicit [visual] function within the area of macular degeneration,” explained Dr. Paulo Stanga, an ophthalmologist at the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital and professor of Ophthalmology and Retinal Regeneration. “When Ray looks at a person in front of him, there is a blurred patch above the shoulders.”

Stanga explained they were hoping Flynn could integrate both the digital data from the glasses with his peripheral sight so that when looking at a person he could see “a silhouette of a face” and not just the shoulders.

Flynn underwent the 4-hour surgery last month and became the first person to receive the bionic implant to cope with his macular degeneration. Stanga is currently running a medical trial to see if the implant is effective and hopes to get another four people enrolled in the study.

Two weeks after his surgery Flynn was first able to test the implant. Stanga had Flynn close his eyes so he would only receive data from the camera.

As he “looked” at a computer screen, Flynn clear made out different shapes in front of him. Stanga said Flynn’s eyesight is expected to keep improving as his brain learns to interpret the data more clearly.

“It was wonderful with my eyes closed to see the bars over there,” he told the BBC. “It was really good.”

For now Flynn is happy to have some of his central sight back and Stanga said the 80-year-old is especially excited about getting back to his garden again now that he can more easily decipher flowers and plants in his garden.

“What we are seeing is that his vision is improving as he wears the device,” explained Stanga. “We don’t know when the improvement will stop.”