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Retinal Implant Helps People See Again

Retinal Implant Helps People See Again

In December 2014, eye surgeon Jim Handa performed the first procedure at The Johns Hopkins Hospital to surgically implant a retinal prosthesis, also known as a bionic eye.

The prosthesis, developed in part using Johns Hopkins research that started more than 20 years ago, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2013 for people with retinitis pigmentosa. Results from clinical trials showed that after surgery and rehabilitation, participants were able to recognize movement, read short words and cross a street.

A genetic disorder of the rods and cones in the retina that slowly causes blindness, the disease affects roughly one in 4,000 Americans. Despite the small number of individuals with the condition, Johns Hopkins’ commitment to helping these patients is signi­ficant.

Gislin Dagnelie, a vision researcher at the Wilmer Eye Institute, contributed to the development and testing of the retinal prosthesis in the 1990s. Today, Dagnelie is overseeing the rehabilitation of Handa’s pioneering patient.

“Right now, it’s the only clinical treatment for retinitis pigmentosa,” says Dagnelie. “You don’t turn the system on and then everything is visible, but after intensive rehabilitation and practice, patients learn to understand what they are seeing.”

The retinal prosthesis consists of a grid of electrodes in a flexible frame, a receiving antenna and a tiny case of electronics. A set of eyeglasses is ­fitted with a small video camera above the bridge to capture the physical environment and sends images to a small processing unit carried in the patient’s pocket. Instructions from the processing unit are then sent to an antenna on the eyeglasses. Next, the antenna sends instructions to the implant, emitting small pulses of electricity that convey visual information to the surviving cells in the retina. These cells send signals to the brain, and the patient sees patterns of light.

The prosthesis is now in use at a dozen hospitals in the U.S.

As seen in the 2016 Biennial Report. Learn more.


Bionic Eye | Adolf's Story

After a life of deafness and nearly a decade of complete blindness due to Usher syndrome and retinitis pigmentosa, Adolf Levi, 83, underwent the first bionic eye implant at Johns Hopkins Medicine to restore his vision. The tiny implant, which is connected to a camera mounted to a pair of glasses, sends digital signals to the retina that translate a sense of “vision” to the brain. The device is the product of many years of research, development and clinical trials, led in part by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. The procedure will restore Levi’s hope in connecting with a world he’s felt isolated from for so many years.


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