Is this the break through that blind and vision impaired persons could be
waiting and hoping for?
A cure for blindness
By Ben Spencer
Daily Mail, Jul 12, 2019
A cure for blindness: Father, 35, who suddenly lost his sight aged nine is
among six patients to have their
vision restored by pioneering treatment that beams images directly into the
Doctors have restored sight to the blind by sending video images directly to
In a world-first that offers hope to millions of patients, five men and one
woman have regained vision
after years of ‘living in the dark’.
They had electrode chips planted in the visual cortex at the back of their
skulls that picked up images
from a tiny video camera mounted in a pair of glasses. Their eyes were
One of the participants, Benjamin James Spencer, who went blind aged nine,
described his joy at seeing
his wife and three daughters for the first time.
‘It is awe inspiring to see so much beauty,’ the 35-year-old told the Daily
Mail last night. ‘I could see the
roundness of my wife’s face, the shape of her body.
‘I could see my kids running up to give me a hug. It is not perfect vision –
it is like grainy 1980s
surveillance video footage. It may not be full vision yet, but it’s
Mr Spencer described how, when he was nine years old, his world went black.
‘It was September 18, 1992, a week after my birthday,’ he said. ‘I was at
school leaving a class and in the
time it took me to walk 50ft everything disappeared.
‘At first it started to go foggy and then a few paces later it was just
‘I panicked and started screaming and kind of went into shock. Everything
after that is pretty vague.’
In the coming days specialists at a hospital near his home in Texas broke
the news that he would never
‘I was told this was going to be my future. I was classed as lacking 100 per
cent light perception. I was
blind,’ he said.
Mr Spencer had paediatric glaucoma, a rare condition caused by a defect in
the eye’s drainage system.
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 sight.
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 just six
people to have a 60-electrode
panel implanted in the back of his brain.
Surgeons at 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 stitching it up again. They
then spent six months
‘mapping’ his visual field.
This involved sending computer signals to the stimulation panel in his head
to synchronise his brain to
the real world – in effect teaching his visual cortex to process images
Eventually, in October, the device was wirelessly connected to a tiny video
camera, mounted in a pair of
glasses, and switched on. He saw his wife and three children for the very
‘It was an incredible moment,’ he told the Daily Mail. ‘It was very
Describing catching a glimpse of the sun through the window, he said: ‘Such
a tiny thing is normal for
people who have vision. But I had not seen the sun since I was nine years
old. I had felt its heat, but
actually seeing it was incredible. After 25 and a half years of living in
the dark, it is awe inspiring to see
so much beauty.’
In January, after months of hospital testing, he was allowed to take the
device home. The terms of the
clinical trial means he can only switch it on for three hours a day, but he
makes the most of it. ‘I usually
use it for 45 minutes at a time and space it out,’ he said. ‘If I want to go
to the store or if one of my kids
has a performance.
‘It is not perfect vision – it is like grainy 1980s surveillance video
footage,’ he said.
‘I can see silhouettes, I can see light and shade, I can guess at colours.
It may not be full vision yet, but it’s something.
‘I can go to the store, I can walk without my cane, I can sort my dark
laundry from the whites, I can see a
crack in the sidewalk coming up. I could see a sign sticking out – but I
couldn’t read what it said.’
Even when completely blind, Mr Spencer learnt to thrive independently.
He finished school, went to college and earned a masters in business,
focusing on international trade. He
worked for a few years in import-export and then set up his own tax
‘I was determined to be an independent person,’ he said. ‘There is always a
way around whatever the
world throws at you.
‘Luckily I had people around me who said you can allow this to define you,
or you can define life. But
that being said, everything was a stepping stone. I learned that life was
British experts described the breakthrough in the United States as a
‘paradigm shift’ in the treatment of
Patients who have benefited from the Orion wireless technology include those
who have lost their sight
due to glaucoma, trauma, infections, autoimmune diseases and nerve problems.
But the surgeons – from Baylor Medical College in Texas and the University
of California Los Angeles –
believe they can eventually help anyone who has lost their sight. They are
unsure, however, whether it
could help people born blind – because the visual cortex would never have
learnt to process images.
They plan to implant 30 more devices over the next few months and if the
results continue to be
positive expect the technology to become widely available within three
Alex Shortt, a University College London lecturer and surgeon at Optegra Eye
Hospital in the capital,
said: ‘This, to my mind, is a massive breakthrough, an amazing advance and
it is very exciting.
‘Previously all attempts to create a “bionic eye” focused on implanting into
the eye itself. It required you
to have a working eye, a working optic nerve.
‘By bypassing the eye completely you open the potential up to many, many
‘This is a complete paradigm shift for treating people with complete
blindness. It is a real message of
He said the quality of the images would only improve.
Second Sight, the small American firm which makes the device, already has
links in the UK thanks to
another visual gadget trialled by the NHS. It plans to try to make Orion
available here as soon as it is fully
approved in the US.
Two million Britons have sight loss – 360,000 of whom are registered as
blind. These figures are set to
double by 2050.
Another patient in the trial was able to tell apart the different balls on a
pool table, picking out the cue
ball from the striped balls and even picking out the blue ball. Others can
walk around a block unaided,
avoiding cars and pedestrians, and tell the curb from 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 in time this will go up.
Daniel Yoshor, the neurosurgeon at Baylor who implanted the device in Mr
Spencer’s brain, said: ‘When
you think of vision, you think of the eyes, but most of the work is being
done in the brain. The impulses
of light that are projected onto the retina are converted into neural
signals that are transmitted along
the optic nerve to parts of the brain.’
The Orion device works by replicating that process with a video camera. The
electrodes stimulate spots
in the visual field – the ‘mind’s eye’ – which when working together create
a black and white image that
replicates the real world. Professor Yoshor said: ‘If you imagine every spot
in the visual field, the visual
world, there’s a corresponding part of the brain that represents that area,
that spatial location.
‘If we stimulate someone’s brain in a specific spot we will produce a
perception of a spot of light
corresponding to that map in the visual world.
‘The idea is if we cleverly stimulate the individual spots in the brain with
electrodes we can actually
reproduce visual form, like pixels on an LCD screen.’
He added: ‘I tell these patients they’re like astronauts flying to the Moon,
they’re taking bold steps to
see not only if the device can help them as individuals, but if it can help
the community of blind patients
across the world.’
The results from the first six patients, presented at the World Society for
Stereotactic and Functional
Neurosurgery conference in New York a fortnight ago, revealed each patient
had regained at least some
degree of vision.
Second Sight is in negotiations with the FDA, the US health regulator, to
launch another study in the
coming months involving 30 patients.
Will McGuire, head of the firm, said: ‘We expect at least two to three years
until it is going to be
available commercially. That will be down to negotiations with the FDA. Then
we will start discussions
with regulatory bodies outside the US.’
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 at the back of the eye, restoring sight
to people who have started
to lose their vision to common conditions such as age-related macular
degeneration – or AMD.
It hit the headlines when it was unveiled at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital
five years ago.
But it relied on a patient having at least some working retinal cells,
stimulating them with the video
images and sending the signal through the optic nerve to the brain.
The new system takes the concept a step further – bypassing the eye
completely and sending the images
directly to the brain.
This means anyone could benefit, even if their eyes are irreversibly damaged
or missing altogether –
such as those who have lost an eye in an accident or on the battlefield, or
those who have become
blinded by cancer, meningitis or sepsis.
Helen Lee, of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, said: ‘We
welcome this innovative technology
which appears to have the potential to improve visual experience for