Retinal ‘implants’ could restore sight for millions

A team of scientists has developed a groundbreaking microchip that could help millions of visually impaired people regain their vision

A study into the effectiveness of using retinal implants – tiny microchips inserted into the eye – has produced encouraging results in the fight against blindness.

A new system, called Alpha IMS, led to significant vision improvements in five out of eight patients who had lost their sight to retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that destroys light-sensitive cells in the eye.

The study, led by Eberhart Zrenner at the University Eye Hospital in Tübingen, Germany, in conjunction with consultants at Oxford Eye Hospital, follows on from a successful trial in 2010.

The system involves inserting a small chip behind the eye’s retina, which detects light coming into the eye via electrodes, before feeding it into a microchip that sends the signals to the brain. Mimicking the process of a healthy eye and neurones, the system then allows patients to see light and dark and make out objects.

The 3mm by 3mm chip is implanted during a 10-hour surgical procedure, and is powered wirelessly from a battery the patient wears in their pocket.

Meanwhile, scientists have discovered 24 new genes that cause refractive errors and myopia (nearsightedness), offering new opportunities to identify a solution to the hereditary trait.

The international team of researchers, called the Consortium for Refraction and Myopia (CREAM), analysed genetic and refractive error data from over 45,000 people from 32 different studies to find the 24 new genes, including those functioning in tissue-signalling, development and eye structure.

Carriers of the high-risk genes were found to have a tenfold increased risk of myopia, which is a widespread problem affecting around 30% of western and 80% of eastern populations.