Bionic Eyes

January 5, 2002 | Source: Science@NASA

Using space technology, scientists have developed extraordinary ceramic photocells that could repair malfunctioning human eyes.

Scientists at the NASA-sponsored Space Vacuum Epitaxy Center (SVEC) in Houston are experimenting with thin, photosensitive ceramic films that respond to light much as rods and cones do. Arrays of such films, they believe, could be implanted in human eyes to restore lost vision by serving as substitutes for bad rods and cones.

Artificial retinas constructed at SVEC consist of 100,000 tiny ceramic detectors, each 1/20 the size of a human hair. The assemblage is so small that surgeons can’t safely handle it. So, the arrays are attached to a polymer film one millimeter by one millimeter in size. A couple of weeks after insertion into an eyeball, the polymer film will simply dissolve leaving only the array behind.

The first human trials of such detectors will begin in 2002.

Scientists aren’t yet certain how the brain will interpretb unfamiliar voltages from the artificial rods and cones. They believe the brain will eventually adapt, although a slow learning process might be necessary — something akin to the way an infant learns shapes and colors for the first time.