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A Michigan man with a degenerative eye disease is one of the first people in the United States to receive a "bionic eye," an artificial retina that has partially reversed the near-blindness. Roger Pontz, a former competitive weightlifter and factory worker from Reed City, Michigan, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when he was a teenager and lost the majority of his vision. While artificial retina procedures have been performed in Europe for the past several years, Pontz is one of just four patients in the U.S. to have the surgery, reports Mike Householder at the Associated Press. Following his surgery, Pontz’s wife, cat, and grandson are now visible to some some degree.

Pontz wears special glasses that house a small video camera and
transmitter, allowing him to see the outline of objects.
(AP / Mike Householder)

The Food and Drug Administration approved the use of artificial retinas last year, and Pontz’s vision was low enough to make him eligible for surgery. Around 100,000 people have retinitis pigmentosa in the U.S., but only around 10,000 have vision that is low enough to be considered for an artificial retina, and 7,500 are eligible for surgery, said Dr. Brian Mech of Second Sight Medical Products, Inc., the company that makes the device.

The bionic eye works when images from a small video camera — included in a pair of glasses wore by Pontz — are converted into electrical pulses that are transmitted wirelessly onto the surface of the retina. Those pulses stimulate the remaining healthy cells in the retina, which then send a signal to the optic nerve, moving visual information to the brain. The glasses Pontz wears have become his surrogate eyes, and allow him to identify shapes and the outline of objects that before he couldn’t see. Speaking with the AP, Pontz said, “I can walk through the house with ease. If that's all I get out of this, it'd be great."

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