Bionic Eyes for Macular Degeneration

Senior Male With Macular Degeneration
Senior with wet macular degeneration. Getty Images/ClarkandCompany

For the first time in history, a British man received a bionic implant to help reduce the disability caused by macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is one of the most common causes of vision loss in aging adults. Mr. Ray Flynn, an 80-year old man, received the implant at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital. The successful implant surgery is a big step toward improving the quality of life of people suffering from retinal problems.

Mr. Flynn now sees the outline of people, objects, and doorways.

Macular Degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) causes observable changes to occur in the pigmented cells of the eye, leaving areas of depigmentation, pigment clumping, and drusen. Drusen are small yellow spots or debris that slowly build up, contributing to the degeneration. Macular degeneration usually progresses very slowly.

Amount of vision loss with AMD varies, but it rarely progresses to legal blindness. Some people may develop macular tissue atrophy and mild scarring. AMD causes a loss of central vision, which can create significant hardships for sufferers. Our macula allows us to have clear, central detailed vision. Disruption in the macula can create distortion in our central vision. Central blind spots can become larger, making it extremely difficult or impossible to read, write or even watch television.

Bionic Implant

The device that was implanted into Mr. Flynn’s eye is the Argus II, a retinal prosthesis developed by a company called Second Sight. Although Mr. Flynn was the first patient with macular degeneration to receive the implant, the device has actually been used before in patients with a disease called retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited retinal dystrophy that causes a loss of peripheral vision and central vision in the later stages.

The device is not meant to be a cure for these conditions but rather a way to replace the light sensing cells in the back of the retina. The Argus II system consists of the following:

  • A small video camera
  • a transmitter mounted on a pair of eyeglasses
  • A video processing unit
  • An implanted retinal prosthesis, which consists of an array of electrodes

The patient wears a pair of glasses that contains a small camera, while the transmitter and the video processing unit is worn on a belt. The camera captures video of what is in front of the patient and sends a signal to the video processing unit and then back up to the eyeglasses where the signal is transmitted to the implant and to the electrode array. The array has a 60-pixel resolution. This resolution is enough for the patient to see shapes, patterns, and possibly large letters. The patient sees the output in black and white. Doctors and researchers noted that Mr. Flynn could “see” the shapes and patterns with his eyes closed, showing that the signal is really being transmitted to the brain.

The cost of the Argus II is about $150,000. Additional fees consist of the cost of the surgery itself to implant the device and to train patients how to use it.

Hopefully, as time goes by and more implants are instilled, the price of the procedure will decrease.

It is important to note that this implant does not restore regular vision. It is intended to provide electrical stimulation of the retina to produce the perception of vision in individuals who have lost considerable vision. Basically, the person with the implant will see a pattern of spots of light. The image is similar to a basketball scoreboard which produces letters and numbers that connect dots of light. It gives a person a visual field of about 3.5 inches by 6.5 inches at arm’s length. The actual size of the lights when the electrodes are turned on together vary in size.

However, scientists are amazed at the progress that Mr. Flynn is making on recognizing shapes and patterns, which is greatly improving his quality of life and mobility.


Rose, Dr. Steve. "First AMD Patient Receives Argus II Bionic Retina." 28 July 2015.