"Bionic Eyes" Could Make Blindness a Thing of the Past

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Just last week I told you the day of bionic humans is at hand.

Some of you were excited by the possibilities. Take Matt:

"As someone who has bounced back from a severe head injury 25 years ago to do things the brain injury rehab team told me would simply not be possible - complete my bachelor's degree as well as a master's, get married, and subsequently raise a son on my own as a single parent, etc. - I am especially excited about the possibilities at the juncture of neurological research, computing technology, and prosthetics. I will be overjoyed when the day comes that I can once again use both my hands to type 100 words/minute with few to no mistakes, like I could when I first learned to type on an electric typewriter, nearly 40 years ago."

On the other hand, several of you thought it sounded like a nightmare. Here's what Claire had to say:

"Transhumanism is a dark future that is presented as wonderful, but which will alienate those who embrace it from their humanity... Not for me, I would rather remain human."

Either way, it seems bionic tech is actually moving faster than I thought...

Restoring Sight to the Blind

You may recall that I cited two examples of future devices to enhance your eyes. One is a pair of contact lenses, and the other is an implant that would go in your retina. Both could access the wireless Web to keep you connected to the world's vast database of knowledge, wherever you are.

Well, it's come out that at least two companies hope to start selling bionic eyes in the U.S. within the next 16 months.

Neither of these designs is made to surf the Web. Instead, these cutting-edge breakthroughs could help millions of blind or visually impaired people to see again.

Take a look...

No one seems to know just how many Americans have lost their sight. Estimates vary widely - anywhere from three million to 10 million people.

What is for sure is that many older Americans suffer from a condition known as age-related macular degeneration, or AMD.

The ailment slowly destroys the macula, a part of the eye's retina that provides the kind of sharp, central vision needed to see objects clearly. AMD can progress quickly and can lead to loss of vision in one eye or both. This type of impaired sight makes it hard to recognize faces, drive a car, read, or write a note.

It is the leading cause of vision loss in older adults.

AMD is one of three types of blindness caused by problems with the retina. That's the light-sensitive membrane in the back of the eye containing rods and cones that receive an image from the lens and sends it to the brain through the optic nerve.
Enter Second Sight Medical Products.

The venture-funded firm recently began selling its Argus II implants in Europe and hopes to enter the U.S. market soon. (By the way, Argus was a giant with 100 eyes in Greek mythology.) Indeed, just three weeks ago, Second Sight said the FDA will review data next month from foreign clinical trials that began in 2007.

The "Bionic Eye" Becomes Reality

Tech experts are calling this device a "bionic eye." Here's why...

In a four-hour surgery, doctors install an antenna behind a patient's eye and connect it to a special pair of glasses. Those glasses contain a video camera that captures a scene. The video is sent to a small patient-worn computer that processes the video and turns it into instructions that are sent back to the glasses via a cable.

This process is designed to create the sense of "light" that patients learn to interpret as visual patterns. The prosthetic system requires roughly 60 tiny electrodes to work.

And it isn't cheap. Second Sight doesn't mention the price on its website, but the tech press has said the system runs roughly $115,000.
Clearly, that's a serious operation and high price tag. But remember this. We're at the very early stages of the bionic revolution. As electronics get ever smaller and cheaper, Second Sight will no doubt improve this system.

Some of you may have already heard about Second Sight. I first wrote about the firm last January in this Money Morning article. I cited the case of Barbara Campbell, a New Yorker who went blind 20 years ago, while she was in her 30s.

Today, Barbara can see rough shapes and enough light to make out the building she lives in. It's all courtesy of Second Sight's Argus II.

In the Money Morning column, I predicted that "in as little as 20 years, human blindness will largely be a thing of the past." That may sound bold. But if anything, it's probably too conservative.

After all, we're living in the Era of Radical Change. High tech and the sciences are moving at warp speed, changing the world faster than any of us can fathom.

I predict Second Sight's product or something like it will eventually result in true bionic eyes - ones that won't require special glasses at all. They'll not only see as clearly as real human eyes, they'll be much "smarter." They'll access the wireless web, take photos and video, send texts, and much more.

It may sound unbelievable, but I'm confident. After all, Second Sight already has competition breathing down its neck.

Just weeks ago, the Israeli firm Nano Retina Inc. got a glowing review from Popular Science. And no wonder. Its Bio-Retina gets its power from a laser. That's pretty cutting edge.

The Bio-Retina implant is smaller than Argus II, because it doesn't have an antenna. Instead, the implant captures images directly in the eye, and a laser powers the implant remotely. Even better, surgeons can insert the system in just 30 minutes.

I like the Bio-Retina approach. It does sound like better tech than Second Sight's. However, on its website, Nano Retina says clinical trials won't start until sometime next year. By then, Second Sight aims to have already hit the U.S. market.

There's a reason this field really speaks to me. As a kid, I was temporarily blinded in one eye when I got hit with a piece of metal. My parents had to take me to the eye doctor every year to make sure my eyesight remained healthy.

So, you can bet that when a bionic eye firm finally goes public, I'll be checking out its stock. Because I know firsthand what a gift it is to be able to see.

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About the Author

Michael A. Robinson is one of the top financial analysts working today. His book "Overdrawn: The Bailout of American Savings" was a prescient look at the anatomy of the nation's S&L crisis, long before the word "bailout" became part of our daily lexicon. He's a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and reporter, lauded by the Columbia Journalism Review for his aggressive style. His 30-year track record as a leading tech analyst has garnered him rave reviews, too. Today he is the editor of the monthly tech investing newsletter Nova-X Report as well as Radical Technology Profits, where he covers truly radical technologies – ones that have the power to sweep across the globe and change the very fabric of our lives – and profit opportunities they give rise to. He also explores "what's next" in the tech investing world at Strategic Tech Investor.

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