MIT’s Bionic Eye – A Moonshot Project

MIT researchers have created a bionic implant to combat blindness.

Joseph Rizzo has spent most of his life trying to cure blindness. He discusses the bionic eye project along with his conspirator John Wyatt in this SolveForX video.

To hear Rizzo describe degenerative blindness is terrifying. Vision is gradually lost, focus is lessened and visible area shrinks until eventually you see only black. During a transplant operation he realized that the tissue he was cutting and removing was still good tissue and might better serve the patient by remaining in the eye. This inspiration led him to John Wyatt and the idea to augment the existing organ instead of trying to use another patient’s eye.

The benefit of using existing tissue is the nerve endings in the eye. Disconnecting and reconnecting several different nerve conduits is risky and doesn’t always bring about good results. John Wyatt helped to borrow techniques from the microchip industry and create ultra-thin, ultra-flexible electrode arrays. Material has to be incredibly thin for the coil to make contact with the retina and not do any damage.

Patients will wear glasses with a special camera attached – the camera will see the world and transmit the signal and images to the eye. Research over the last few years has focused on taking the digital signal from a camera and turning it into information that the brain can process.

Unlike many moonshot projects featured here at the Bionic Eye has been in development for more than twenty years. The Boston Retinal Impact Project was part of establishing the team of retinal prosthetics in the 1980s, and the Bionic Eye project was the first to use electrode arrays to electrically stimulate the retina. A quick look around their website shows that the project is large in scope and close to bringing the project to wider use.