April 7, 2005.
People with severely damaged retinas may have some sight restored within 10 years using new technology developed by groups in the United States and Germany it was announced at the Vision 2005 conference1 in London which concludes today (7 April 2005).
In a presentation at the conference hosted by the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), Professor Gislin Dagnelie, Ph.D, who is based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore USA, highlighted cutting edge developments in prosthetic technology taking place across the world which will see electronic devices performing the role of the retina.
The technology comprises a small camera, which is attached to spectacles, and a microchip which is inserted into the back of the eye through surgery. The camera focuses on an image, transmits this to a processor which, in turn transmits to the microchip which will then create the image the person sees.
At this stage the technology can only produce the most basic image in black and white. The image is comprised of a series of dots similar to a dot-matrix notice board and enables someone to distinguish between horizontal or vertical lines or make out the outline of a door but little else. However, there are plans to begin trials next year on more advanced microchips which will be able to produce more complex images.
Professor Dagnelie said:" These are very exciting times for developments in improving or restoring eyesight. We are at a similar juncture to where the development of the cochlear implant was in terms of improving hearing 25 years ago. Although the images are basic and, at this stage made up of only 16 dots, a group in the United States will be starting clinical trials next year on microchips which can produce 50 dots. In other words the image will still be very basic but more complex than before."
He continued:" Although these developments are very exciting it is important for people to realise that we are still at least 10 years away from being able to provide these devices to blind and partially sighted people. We still need to undertake clinical trials and continue researching how the damaged retina functions. Even then we may still face a challenge in enabling people with damaged retinas to interpret the electronic signals as meaningful images."
It is hoped that this technology will be able to help blind people who see nothing at all and, at a later stage when the technology has been proven safe, those with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the most common cause of sight loss in the developed world.
Anita Lightstone, head of eye health at RNIB, said: "These developments are truly revolutionary and there is certainly the potential to change the lives of thousands of people in the future. However, it is important to note that these devices won't replace normal eyesight and to emphasise again that these developments are many years away and people shouldn't build their hopes up at this stage."
She added:" These developments come at a crucial time for us in the UK. We face a sight-loss time bomb with the number of people with sight problems set to double over the next 20 years2."
"Although one in six people in the UK will develop a sight problem by the age of 753the Government is still failing to address the situation - leaving the country facing the effects of chronic under-investment in prevention, treatment and support."
Recent research has shown that sight loss is costing the nation £4.9 billion4each year through lost productivity, higher social care and social security costs and that this is set to increase as the population continues to age.
Anita Lightstone commented: "We need significant investment now for further research and to improve treatment for long-term eye conditions such as Diabetic Retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and to increase resources available for social care and support for independent living."
"We would like to see a Chief Eye Health Officer appointed who could lead on developing a framework for high quality services across health and social care as well as a Government-supported eye health campaign on the importance of regular eye tests. We can't stress enough the importance of regular eye tests for everyone as they really can in many cases be the difference between someone losing their sight or not."
For more media information please contact Ciara Smyth or Paul McDonald, RNIB Press Office on 020 7391 2223 (out of hours mobile: 07968 482812)
End of article.
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