Fran Fulton is 66, and she’s been fully blind for about 10 years. A few weeks ago, all that changed.
Fulton suffers from retinitis pigmentosa—a degenerative eye disease that slowly causes light-sensitive cells in the retina to die off. Over the course of several years she lost her sight, and for the past 10 years she hasn’t been able to see anything at all. But in late July, Fulton was outfitted with a system called the Argus II. A pair of camera-equipped glasses are hooked up to electrodes implanted in her eyeball, which feed her brain visual information. Using the system, she can now see the world again. What’s the experience like?
“When they ‘turned me on’ so to speak it was absolutely the most breathtaking experience,” she says. “I was just so overwhelmed and so excited, my heart started beating so fast I had to put my hand on my chest because I thought it was going to pop.”
As both cameras and our understanding of the visual system improve, new techniques to restore sight to the blind are progressing too. Devices like the Argus II are able to bypass damaged eyes to restore some vision to those who have lost it. It’s not the same as fully restored vision, and it’s still in its early days—there are only six people in the U.S. with the Argus II—but researchers hope that as they learn more about vision they can help those who’ve lost it get it back.
The Argus II system is made up of three parts: a pair of glasses, a converter box, and an electrode array. The glasses aren’t corrective, they are simply a vehicle for the camera—and that camera is no more complicated than the versions found in modern smart phones. The image from the camera is then transmitted down into a converter box that can be carried in a purse or pocket. This box sends signals to the electrode array implanted onto the patient’s retina. Essentially, what the Argus II does is skip over the cells that retinitis pigmentosa has killed to get visual signals to the brain.