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Australian world-first bionic eye invention ready for sight

Bruce McDougall, June 8, 2018 7:30AM The Daily Telegraph

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A bionic eye that can restore the sight of blind people will be tested in humans in a world-first application of cutting edge Australian-developed technology. Picture: supplied media_cameraA bionic eye that can restore the sight of blind people will be tested in humans in a world-first application of cutting edge Australian-developed technology. Picture: supplied

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A bionic eye that restores* sight to blind people will be tested in humans in a world-first use of brand new Australian technology.

Human trials are about to start on the wireless* device that could change the lives of millions of blind people.

The device comes with a coiled antenna* that sits on the back of the head and sends information from a camera into the brain — bypassing* sightless eyes — to restore vision.

Neurosurgeon* Professor Jeffrey Rosenfeld said blind people fitted with the device would see flashes of light straight away but not a high-quality image.

“It will restore enough vision to improve their level of function* in activities of daily living like recognising objects on a table and when people near them are moving,” Prof Rosenfeld said.

“They won’t be able to recognise the detail of a person’s face unless they hear the voice but they will be able recognise where a staircase is, where a door or door handle is — common things you need to navigate* the environment in everyday life.”

People will be able to see the outline of things such as a staircase, object or face. Picture: supplied media_cameraPeople will be able to see the outline of things such as a staircase, object or face. Picture: supplied

The project has just won $500,000 in Australian government funding to develop and was shown to medical experts yesterday.

Now Prof Rosenfeld and his team from the Monash Vision Group are searching for several fully blind Australians to sign up for the trials, which will be followed by a much larger test program.

The person will wear special glasses with a camera on the frame similar to the camera in a mobile phone. Picture: supplied media_cameraThe person will wear special glasses with a camera on the frame similar to the camera in a mobile phone. Picture: supplied

“We have about 50 people on our books straight away who are keen to go ahead … there are 50,000 blind people in Australia but not all will be candidates* for this (device),” he said.

Fitted to the rear of the brain, the blind person wears custom-designed* glasses with a tiny camera mounted on the frame — similar in size to that in a mobile phone — which takes images and sends them to a mini computer sitting on the person’s belt or in their pocket. Information is then sent wirelessly to the vision part of the brain, called the primary visual cortex.

A mini computer will sit on the person’s belt or in their pocket to process the images. Picture: supplied media_cameraA mini computer will sit on the person’s belt or in their pocket to process the images. Picture: supplied

Known as the Gennaris bionic vision system, it is designed to bypass* damage to the eye and optic nerve and restore some vision to people who have lost their sight through injury and disease.

Prof Rosenfeld said it was not known yet how much the device would cost but he hoped the cost for the user would be covered by insurance.

Human trials will take six to 12 months and start later this year with results reported in 2019.

More than $15 million has been spent on the project so far and more funds will be needed to expand the trials and make it affordable for users.

In 1987 Holly Taylor became the first Australian to receive a cochlear implant. media_cameraIn 1987 Holly Taylor became the first Australian to receive a cochlear implant.

ANOTHER AUSTRALIAN INVENTION

Australian Graeme Clark invented the cochlear implant in the 1970s, which bypasses the ear to help deaf people some sense of sound.

Like the bionic eye, the cochlear implant includes several parts:

  • One or more microphones to pick up sound;
  • Processor that filters sounds and chooses speech sounds;
  • Transmitter that sends power and the processed sounds across the skin to an implanted device;
  • Receiver that picks up the signals and converts them into electric impulses*;
  • Electrodes* embedded in the cochlear, which is the sense organ behind each ear.

EXTRA READING

iPhone helps the deaf hear music

GLOSSARY

restores: repairs

wireless: without a wire

antenna: aerial to receive a signal

bypassing: going around

neurosurgeon: brain surgeon

function: work properly

candidates: suitable person

custom-designed: made just for this

bypass: go around

impulses: signals

electrodes: something electrical signals go through

LISTEN TO TODAY’S STORY

QUICK QUIZ

1. Name the neurosurgeon quoted in the story.

2. What are some common things you need to see for everyday life that this could help with?

3. How many blind people are there in Australia? Will this be suitable for them all?

4. What is the vision part of the brain called?

5. What is the cochlear implant? Who invented it and when?

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES

Read or listen to the article carefully to understand how this technology will work. Draw a labelled diagram showing how a person fitted with this technology is able to see. Show where the camera will be placed and how it sends the information to the brain.

Time: Allow 20 minutes

Curriculum links: English, Science, Technologies — Design and Technologies

Extension: Imagine you were one of the 50 people who were ready to sign up for this technology to enhance your vision.

Draw three circles on your page labelled ‘Excited about…’, ‘Worried about …’ and ‘Questions’. Think of what excites you about this new technology, what worries you have and what questions you want answered before you go ahead. Write these in the corresponding circle.

After thinking this through, would you go ahead with the first trials?

Time: Allow 15 minutes

Curriculum links: English, Science, Critical and Creative thinking, Technologies — Design and Technologies

VCOP ACTIVITY

With a partner see if you can you identify all the doing words/verbs in this text? Highlight them in yellow and then make a list of them all down your page. Now see if you and your partner can come up with a synonym for the chosen verb- make sure it still makes the context it was taken from.

Try and see if you can replace some of the original verbs with your synonyms and discuss if any are better and why.

QUESTION: How could a successful bionic eye change the lives of blind people?

Use full sentences to explain your answer.

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