Blind World Magazine

Rare Operation Restores Some Sight to a Blind Woman.

May 27, 2005.
Ergonomics Today.

A blind Missouri woman traveled to Portugal recently to have a bionic eye fitted, and it is no surprise that her homecoming made headlines. The technology is almost 40 years old, but the surgery to wire the sci-fi device to the brain is still one of the rarest operations in medicine. Cheri Robertson is just the 16th person in the world to undergo the experimental surgery, pioneered in 1968 by Dr. William Dobelle. The American medical researcher died in 2004.

Artificial vision has been a popular topic for journalists - and screenwriters -- for decades. The appeal? Its sci-fi associations and potential for bringing independence to the blind.

The prosthetic device functions as a cornea, directing light into the interior of the eye. Once readily available, it will have a huge market. Research to Prevent Blindness Inc. reports that 1.1 million people in the United States and 42 million worldwide are blind.

"We are now at a watershed," Joseph Lazzaro, author of "Adaptive Technologies for Learning and Work Environments," told cable television channel CNN in 2002. "We are at the beginning of the end of blindness with this type of technology."

The high-tech eyepiece is fitted to the sunglasses of the Missouri woman, and it is attached to an electrode inside her skull. A miniscule camera sends video signals into a computer, which processes the information and then sends it through two cables plugged into her skull. The electrode inside stimulates the back of the brain, which creates a dot matrix image. Until her brain adapts to the technology, Cheri Robertson can only see outlines. Over time, the signal will be strengthened and images will become more detailed.

The prosthetic device resembles the bionic eyepiece actress Jeri Ryan wears in "Star Trek-Voyager," and functions like the visor worn by actor LeVar Burton, playing a blind engineer, in an earlier series of the TV science fiction drama.

Cheri Robertson is alive to the sci-fi aspect of her new accessory. "It's like Robochick!" she told NBC channel KSDK-TV in St. Louis at her homecoming reception.

According to the DSDK-TV report, the death of Dr. Dobelle complicated the blind woman's quest for a new life as a sighted person. She developed a brain infection that delayed completion of the surgery, then Dr. Dobelle died, creating another delay. His surgical team completed the procedure.

All 16 of the bionic eye procedures to date were performed in Portugal at the Dobelle Institute: the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still prohibits the operation in America because of its inherent risks. At present the device is only available to people who have once had sight (and who can raise the $70,000 cost): Cheri Robertson lost hers in a car accident when she was 18.

A New Yorker identified as Jerry was the pioneering recipient. Hooked up to a computer that weighed tons, he could see shades of gray in a narrow field of vision. Cheri Robertson's computer is worn in a small shoulder bag. The New York man, whose device has been upgraded over the years, is now able to navigate subway systems on his own.

The eighth recipient, a Canadian farmer identified on the Dobelle Institute web site as Jens, lost his sight in an accident. Now he's able to navigate through rooms, find doors and even drive a car in controlled circumstances.

The founder of the revolutionary procedure died on October 5, 2004, and the future of his Dobelle Institute is unclear. The late doctor had a head start in the field of artificial vision, but other researchers around the world have also been very busy. Many are close to clinical applications of artificial corneas, retinas and other eye parts. And Dr. Dobelle's techniques are expected to be available in the United States within five years. It seems only a matter of time before blind people can retire their white canes and seeing-eye dogs, and lead full, productive lives.

Sources: Dobelle Institute, KSDK-TV -St Louis, Artificial Vision Project

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