Ben Spencer, 35, carries the Orion Visual Cortical Prosthesis system
Doctors have recovered blind people by sending video images directly to the brain.
In a world first that offers hope to millions of patients, five men and one woman have lived in the dark after years of & # 39; regained sight.
They had placed electrodes in the visual cortex at the back of their skulls that picked up images from a small video camera that was attached in glasses. Their eyes were completely bypassed.
One of the participants, Benjamin James Spencer, who became blind at the age of nine, described his joy of seeing his wife and three daughters for the first time. & # 39; It's so awesome to see so much beauty & # 39 ;, the 35-year-old said last night to the Daily Mail. & # 39; I could see the curve of my wife's face, the shape of her body.
& # 39; I could see my children running to give me a hug. It is not a perfect vision – it is just like grainy surveillance video footage from the eighties. Maybe it's not a complete vision yet, but it's something. & # 39;
M. Spencer described how, when he was nine years old, his world turned black.
& # 39; It was September 18, 1992, a week after my birthday, & # 39; he said. & # 39; I had left a class at school and by the time it took me to walk, everything disappeared.
& # 39; First it started to get foggy and then a few steps later it was just dark.
& # 39; I panicked and started screaming and got a little shocked. Everything after that is pretty vague. & # 39;
In the coming days, specialists at a hospital near his home in Texas broke the news that he would never see again.
& # 39; I was told this would be my future. I was classified as without 100 percent light perception. I was blind, & he said.
Mr. Spencer had glaucoma in children, a rare condition caused by a defect in the drainage system of the eyes.
Ben Spencer, 35, with his wife and daughters (from left to right: Melissa, 13, Jeanette, 42, Jane, 10, and Abigail, 15)
It had been incurable, but scientists have now managed to bypass the broken link by sending images directly to the visual cortex, the part of the brain responsible for vision.
Mr. Spencer lives in the city of Pearland, near Houston, with his wife Jeanette, 42, and daughters Abigail, 15, Melissa, 13 and Jane, ten. In April 2018, he became one of six people who had implanted a panel with 60 electrodes in the back of the head.
Surgeons from Baylor Medical College in Houston spent two hours cutting a window in his skull, placing the electrode array on the surface of the brain, and sewing it up again. They then spent six months mapping his field of vision.
This involved sending computer signals to the stimulation panel in his head to synchronize his brain with the real world – in fact, learning his visual cortex to process images again.
Finally, in October, the device was connected wirelessly to a small video camera, mounted in glasses and turned on. He saw his wife and three children for the first time.
& # 39; It was an incredible moment & # 39 ;, he told the Daily Mail. & # 39; It was very humble. & # 39;
He described catching a glimpse of the sun through the window and said: & # 39; So & # 39; one small thing is normal for people who have a vision. But I hadn't seen the sun since I was nine years old. I had felt his warmth, but actually it was incredible. After 25 and a half years of living in the dark, it is awesome to see so much beauty. & # 39;
In January, after months of testing in the hospital, he was allowed to take the device home. The conditions of the clinical trial mean that he can only switch it on for three hours a day, but he gets the best out of it. & # 39; I usually use it for 45 minutes at a time and turn it off, & # 39; he said. & # 39; If I want to go to the store or if one of my children has a performance.
& # 39; It's not a perfect vision – it's like grainy video footage from the 1980s & # 39 ;, he said.
& # 39; I can see silhouettes, I can see light and shadow, I can guess colors. Maybe it's not a complete vision yet, but it's something.
& # 39; I can go to the store, I can walk without my cane, I can sort my dark wax out of the whites, I see a crack coming up in the sidewalk. I could see a sign sticking out – but I couldn't read what it said. & # 39;
Even when he was completely blind, Mr. Spencer learned to thrive independently.
He completed school, went to college and earned a master's degree in business, with a focus on international trade. He worked in import-export for a few years and then set up his own tax activities.
& # 39; I was determined to be an independent person, & # 39; he said. & # 39; There is always a way whatever the world gives you.
& Luckily I had people around me who said you could allow this to define you, or you could define life. But having said that, everything was a stepping stone. I have learned that life is about adaptation. & # 39;
British experts described the breakthrough in the United States as a & # 39; paradigm shift & # 39; in the treatment of the blind.
Patients who have benefited from Orion's wireless technology are patients who have lost vision due to glaucoma, trauma, infections, autoimmune diseases and nerve problems.
But the surgeons – from Baylor Medical College in Texas and the University of California in Los Angeles – believe they can ultimately help someone who has lost sight. However, they are not sure if it could help blind people – because the visual cortex would never have learned to process images.
They plan to implant 30 more devices in the coming months and if the results remain positive, it is expected that the technology will be widely available within three years.
Alex Shortt, a lecturer at University College London and surgeon at Optegra Eye Hospital in the capital, said: & I think this is a huge breakthrough, an amazing step forward and it is very exciting.
& # 39; Previously, all attempts to create a & # 39; create a bionic eye focused on implantation in the eye itself. The requirement that you have a working eye, a working optic nerve.
& # 39; By completely circumventing the eye, you open up the potential for many, many more people.
& # 39; This is a complete paradigm shift for the treatment of people with complete blindness. It is a true message of hope. & # 39;
Brother / sister friends: Mr. Spencer, as a young boy of 7 years with his sister Tiffany
He said that the quality of the images would only improve.
Second Sight, the small American company that makes the device, already has links in the UK thanks to another visual gadget tested by the NHS. It is planning to make Orion available here once it is fully approved in the US.
Two million Britons have a loss of face – of which 360,000 are registered as blind. These figures will be doubled in 2050.
Another patient in the study was able to separate the different balls on a pool table, remove the toy from the striped balls, and even pick out the blue ball. Others can walk around a block without help, avoid cars & pedestrians and tell the way of the road.
Scientists hope to radically improve the quality of the device.
The current prototype has 60 electrodes. The version they hope to use in their next trial will have 150 – and over time this will increase.
Daniel Yoshor, the neurosurgeon of Baylor who implanted the device in Mr. Spencer's brain, said: “When you think of a vision, you think of the eyes, but most of the work is done in the brain. The impulses of light that are projected onto the retina are converted into neural signals that are transmitted via the optic nerve to parts of the brain. & # 39;
The Orion device works by replicating that process with a video camera. The electrodes stimulate spots in the field of vision – the & # 39; mind & # 39; s eye & # 39; – who work together to create a black and white image that replicates the real world. Professor Yoshor said: & # 39; If you imagine every place in the visual field, the visual world, there is a corresponding part of the brain that represents that area, that spatial location.
& # 39; If we stimulate someone's brain in a specific place, we produce a perception of a light spot that matches that map in the visual world.
& # 39; The idea is that if we cleverly stimulate individual spots in the brain with electrodes, we can reproduce visual forms, such as pixels on an LCD screen. & # 39;
He added: “I tell these patients that they are like astronauts flying to the moon, they are taking courageous steps not only to see if the device can help them as individuals, but if it is the community of blind patients can help around the world. & # 39;
The results of the first six patients, presented at the World Society for Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery in New York two weeks ago, revealed that each patient had regained at least some vision.
Second Sight is negotiating with the FDA, the American health regulator, to start a new study with 30 patients in the coming months.
Will McGuire, head of the company, said: & We expect at least two to three years until it will be commercially available. This is due to negotiations with the FDA. We will then start discussions with regulators outside the US. & # 39;
The Orion system is built on the success of an earlier device called the Argus II, which uses a similar camera to send images to an implant in the back of the eye, causing people who began to lose sight of common conditions such as facial recovery as age-related macular degeneration – or AMD.
It hit the headlines when it was unveiled five years ago at the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital.
But he relied on a patient who at least had some working retinal cells, stimulated it with the video images and sent the signal through the optic nerve to the brain.
The new system takes the concept one step further – bypassing the eye completely and sending the images directly to the brain.
This means that everyone can benefit even if their eyes are irreversibly damaged or missing altogether – such as those who have lost an eye in an accident or battlefield, or those who have been blinded by cancer, meningitis or sepsis.
Helen Lee, from the Royal National Institute of Blind People, said: & We welcome this innovative technology that seems to have the potential to enhance the visual experience for blind people.
& # 39; It could be life changing for many people, but it is still very early.
& # 39; Robust tests are needed to assess both the benefits and the adverse effects. & # 39; Professor Glen Jeffery, a visual scientist at University College London, said he doubted whether the new device would ever be able to restore more than a very rough vision.
& # 39; You may see large objects or large letters and you can go around the world. Technology has continued enormously in this area. But people will not be able to read a newspaper with this. & # 39;
He said the retina was an extremely refined part of the body – and simply bypassing it would not lead to the kind of vision that people expect.
& # 39; It will also be very expensive to do this for many people, & # 39; Professor Jeffery added.
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