Italian Scientist and researchers have created an organic and biocompatible polymer for the first artificial retina. Without the help of glasses, micro-cameras or batteries, it reacts to light like eye cells and can restore sight to those suffering from retinitis pigmentosa and degenerative macula.
There will not be a need for glasses, microchips or computers nor it will look like what you see in science fiction films: the bionic eye of the near future will have, in all, a human aspect thanks to an artificial retina that can correct sight deficits without turning into aspiring cyborgs. The membrane, created in the laboratory of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) of Genoa, consist only of organic material and, according to the researchers’ forecasts, in a few years it can be used as a prosthesis to restore a complete visual functionality in those suffering from degenerative macula or retinitis pigmentosa.
Similar to the eye
The artificial retina, presented in the journal Nature Photonics, has shown performances similar to those of the human retina because it is capable of mimicking the action of cones and rods. Its cells are responsible for capturing light and transmitting visual information to the brain to form images, shapes and colors. No need for cables or external batteries to stimulate the artificial retina, just light. It is based on an internal photovoltaic system, carbon cells, capable of converting light into electricity just like the photoreceptors in the eye. In some degenerative eye diseases, photoreceptors no longer react to light and thus create a dark hole in the perceived image. As in a puzzle, more cells are damaged by the disease and more are the pieces that are missing to form an image. The artificial membrane would function as a filler for these missing pieces and, placed under the damaged retina, would instead help complete the whole image in the brain. Researchers are now testing the polymer on an animal model and will have to wait at least some years before it can be implanted in humans.
More invasive, and more like cyborgs, are the retinal prostheses already available, which however exploit inorganic semiconductors such as silicon, ie microchips. These are glasses with dark lenses equipped with a micro-camera that captures and sends images to a computer, as big as a smartphone and worn by the patient. From the minicomputer the information is processed and then transmitted, via wirless communication, to a microchip implanted on the retina, and from there it stimulates the neurons that transfer them to the brain. “At the moment only completely blind patients who have developed the most severe form of retinitis pigmentosa can undergo surgery. For the near future a prosthesis with more than 200 electrodes is foreseen, that is a density four times better than the one we implant today and this will therefore allow to extend the field of application even to patients who have a better vision. With this type of prosthesis, patients who have lost their sight return to recognizing shapes and shadows.
Beyond the limits
Current retinal prostheses can restore sight, with images that are not very detailed, only to those who are blind, and are not very sensitive to less severe deficits. There are many eye diseases that affect rods and cones, but in most cases they lead to low vision, that is the typical spotted view and do not get any improvement from a prosthesis. The evolution of the artificial eye, whether of metal or almost human tissue, goes in the direction of treating a greater number of cases and pathologies. The artificial retina seems to have a good sensitivity to daylight. Moreover, being of organic material it could be better tolerated inside the eye, with less risk of inflammation, because it is less rigid than a microchip.
Franco defines itself as a person trapped in a sedentary lifestyle, however, he is an avid fitness “addict” and like, many more in his environment spends vast parts of his leisure time on a gym, running, cycling.