Bionic eyes are visual devices that are implanted into the eye via surgery. Many different types of these visual tools are in development around the world, including in the U.S.
The goal of bionic eyes is to restore vision in people who have some degree of vision loss. However, they aren’t currently able to work for those who were born blind.
It’s important to note that bionic eyes work to potentially restore vision. Currently, bionic eyes have been successful in restoring partial vision, but they have not yet been able to restore full vision.
Most often, bionic eyes involve an internal implant that synchronizes with a camera and a processing unit outside the body.
What Are Bionic Eyes?
Bionic eyes can potentially restore vision for some people. For example, bionic eyes may be appropriate for individuals who have significant retinal damage.
These visual devices allow light to be transformed from the environment into electrical impulses. The electrical impulses travel along the optic nerve to the visual cortex where they are processed to make sense of images, and this process allows for vision.
The first bionic eye implant was performed in 2012. This initial implant was very simple, and advancements have been made since then.
Are They Currently in Use?
The Argus II Retinal System is the only type of bionic eye that is currently used in the U.S.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of this bionic eye for individuals who have advanced stage retinitis pigmentosa. While this is its only approved use currently, it is also being tested for use in cases of vision loss related to macular degeneration.
What Do Bionic Eyes Treat?
In the United States, bionic eyes are currently only approved for the treatment of retinitis pigmentosa. As research continues, it’s likely that their approved uses will expand to treat vision loss from other conditions.
Who Is a Candidate?
In the United States, only individuals with advanced stage retinitis pigmentosa are candidates for bionic eyes. However, the technology is very new, and it is widely agreed that uses for bionic eyes will expand greatly in the coming years.
As more clinical trials are conducted, and researchers continue to improve the effectiveness and technological capabilities of bionic eyes, it is possible that more individuals with a wider range of eye conditions will be eligible for a bionic eye implant.
How Do Bionic Eyes Work?
Different types of bionic eyes work in different ways, but most involve an internal implant and an external camera that captures images.
For example, the Argus II Retinal System works via this two-part system. A small camera is positioned on a pair of glasses, and electrodes are implanted on the retina, in the back of the eye. When a person looks at something, the camera captures images and sends them to a processing unit that is outside the body (often worn in a vest or on a belt).
Data is processed and sent to the retinal implant, and the electrodes there stimulate the retina. The retina then sends electrical signals to the brain where vision is processed.
Costs of Functional Visual Prostheses
As with most new technologies, the limited availability of bionic eyes and lack of individuals who are sufficiently skilled and familiar with the surgical procedure make these devices very expensive. The surgical intervention takes many hours, and training is required in order for users to understand how to interpret signals from the device.
The cost of just the bionic eye itself, excluding the surgical procedure and subsequent training that is involved, is approximately $150,000. When factoring in the additional costs, the total bill is likely to be closer to $200,000.
In many cases, insurance may at least partially cover the cost of bionic eyes, provided they are deemed medically necessary. For example, Medicare has approved coverage of the Argus II.
In the Future
Bionic eye technology is still in its infancy. As research progresses and the technology is tested on users with varying eye conditions, it is more likely that bionic eyes will be approved for more individuals. The cost will also likely come down as the technology becomes more widely available.
Bionic eye technology is not without some controversy. Some question the ethics of the technology and the connection it has to brain implants, which are gaining momentum in the medical literature for their potential benefits in treating numerous conditions.
However, there are concerns that implanting chips in the human body, including the eye and brain, can expose human beings to physical and privacy risks. This practice may have unexpected consequences on human health and functioning.
Bionic vs. Prosthetic Eyes
A bionic eye is not a prosthetic eye. The latter, sometimes referred to as a glass eye or artificial eye, is a replacement for the physical structure of a full eye that has been removed because of an injury or disease.
Prosthetic eyes do not offer any vision-producing capabilities. Their main purpose is cosmetic. A bionic eye offers vision-producing capabilities, and its purpose is functional, helping to restore sight.
Potential Downsides of Bionic Eyes
While bionic eyes’ potential to restore vision is life-changing for many, there are potential downsides to these implants. Here are some possible disadvantages:
- Bionic eyes are very expensive. Since not all insurance providers cover the procedure, you may be left with a large out-of-pocket bill in some cases.
- Bionic eyes are not approved in the United States for any condition except advanced stage retinitis pigmentosa. If you have vision loss from another condition, you likely won’t have the option for bionic eyes at this point.
- The future of bionic eye technology is unclear, though it does look promising. You may have a very limited number of professionals who are able to monitor and maintain your device in the future, so consider this before moving forward.
- Any long-term side effects, physical health risks, or psychological impacts associated with bionic eyes are not fully understood because of the relative infancy of the technology.
- Bionic eyes do not provide the same cosmetic benefit that prosthetic eyes offer, and the technology may be considered obtrusive and very difficult for some people to use.
- As with any surgery and implant, there are standard surgical risks associated with bionic eyes, including risk of infection, rejection, and other complications.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you are considering bionic eyes, it’s likely that you are under the care of a doctor who recommended it as a possibility. Talk to a specialist about whether you are a good candidate for bionic eyes or if you should stay aware of developments in this area in case it becomes a good option for you in the future.
Bionic Eye. (December 2022). Britannica.
Bionic Eyes: Obsolete Tech Leaves Patients in the Dark. (February 2022). BBC.
Bionic Eyes: Treatments for Blindness Target the Retina and the Brain. (May 2022). Drug Discovery News.
FDA Approves First Bionic Eye for the Blind. (February 2013). Argonne National Laboratory.
Medicare Approves Coverage for Second Sight’s Argus II ‘Bionic Eye’. (August 2013). Mass Device.
Building the Bionic Eye: An Emerging Reality and Opportunity. (April 2016). Progress in Brain Research.
Advances in Implantable Bionic Devices for Blindness: A Review. (September 2016). Anz Journal of Surgery.
Last Updated March 15, 2023
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