The 1970s TV show The Six Million Dollar Man (which now seems quaintly underpriced in today’s dollars) brought the word “bionic” into general use, with sci-fi connotations that it has never completely shed. But one area of prosthetics where fact has begun to overtake fiction is in the world of bionic vision. In 2015, the Honolulu-based ophthalmologist Dr. Gregg Kokame ’78 was the first physician in the Asia-Pacific region to implant a bionic eye, giving a patient who had been blind from hereditary retinal disease the gift of sight.
The process involves inserting into the eye a 60-microelectrode implant, which transfers impulses from a tiny camera attached to a pair of glasses directly to the patient’s retina. “It does not allow people to recover reading vision,” he explains, “but they do recover the ability to ambulate, the ability to see figures, the ability to see somebody come into a room. They can even pick out patterns. So they can do a lot more than they could do before.”
Future bionic eyes, Kokame says, may permit patients to see in color or to read a book, but first researchers will have to break the brain’s code for color vision and develop even tinier and cooler microelectrodes so that more of them can be added to the matrix without overheating the eye. “Amazingly,” he adds, “for patients whose eyes or optic nerves are not working at all, they are trying to bypass the eye completely and implant electrodes directly on the brain.”