Ophthalmologists May Need A Computer Degree: How “Bionic” Microchips Are Changing The Way You See

As early as 2006, researchers were developing a microchip implant that would allow blind people and people with severe visual impairments see. In 2012, the first two subjects underwent the surgery that placed a chip into the human eye and connected it to diodes that provided light and channeled the information to the visual cortex of their brains. Just as the hearing impaired were given the cochlear implant, now the visually impaired have the "bionic" eye. It will dramatically change the way ophthalmologists are educated, and how people see.

Infrared and Fuzzy Vision

The new "bionic" eye is hardly perfect. It cannot allow patients to see with perfect vision when they did not have any vision to begin with. Instead, the three patients who first received their sight reported seeing fuzzy images, but were able to see more clearly when prescribed special glasses that work in tandem with the microchip and diodes. Additionally, they could see in infrared, something that no human without night vision goggles can see. The entire procedure is currently offered to patients at specific eye institutes in the U.S., and the majority of the patients served have blindness due to retinitis pigmentosa.

What That Means for Ophthalmology

As eye doctors (such as Jo Johnson, M.D.) in the next decade begin to pursue their degrees in optometry and ophthalmology, they will have to familiarize themselves with this procedure. Even if they choose not to become certified providers of the technology, they will have to recognize patients who have it and be able to assist them with maintenance and repairs to the glasses and the internal components. It is possible that, as a student of ophthalmology, you will have to take a course in micro-technology and chip design, as well as the implantation and connection of the devices in your internships.

Keeping the Microchip and Diodes Functioning

As with most electronic devices, and even with the cochlear implant, electrical power needs to be efficient and replaceable or rechargeable. Scientists have been working on this problem as well. One group (in 2008) even developed a millimeter-sized battery to operate all of the bionic eye components. As an ophthalmologist of the future, you will have to change the battery regularly for every patient you have that has had this procedure. Whether that battery will be internal or external currently remains to be seen, but the three patients who now have sight when they did not before are proof that the components do work and will work for others.