Friday, September 23, 2011

Bionic boon for the blind

For millions of Indians who suffer from loss of vision due to retina damage and age-related macular degeneration, there is now hope. A bionic eye which would help them see is going to be developed indigenously. The visual device would use eyeglasses fitted with digital cameras and a retinal implant and has been successfully tried on patients abroad.

The co-inventor of the global project, Dr Rajat N Agrawal , says he wants to make the implant affordable here and will work to bring down the cost of the implant to Rs 5 lakh from its present cost of Rs 45 lakh (approx).

"We are collaborating with experts from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and several IITs to indigenously develop a cheaper variant of the eye implant so that people here can afford it. We are also trying to get the central government to fund the research project," said Agrawal, an assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of Southern California.

Agrawal was working as a retina specialist at Sankara Netralaya in Chennai till 2001. After this he joined a group of scientists in US who were working to develop this bionic eye. He holds the patent for the device along with his colleagues.

The bionic eye developed by Agrawal and his team consists of a chip fitted behind the retina. The system works by converting video images captured from a miniature camera in the patient's glasses into a series of electrical pulses transmitted wirelessly to the chip, itself an array of electrodes. These pulses then stimulate the retina's remaining cells, resulting in a corresponding perception of patterns of light in the brain.

"We have used this implant successfully on 37 patients of advanced retinitis pigmentosa - a disease caused by damage to the retina. The patients have shown improvement in daily activities and some can even read large letters ," he said.

Dr R V Azad, chief of retina services and professor ophthalmology, AIIMS, confirmed that he has been contacted to participate in the new project.

"The invention of this medical implant is a beginning and further modification is required to improve the visual capabilities, precision and to reduce the cost.