Bionic Eye Implant

A vision for vision

Imagine how you would feel if gradually you lost your sight, and you knew there was nothing you could do about it? Sunsets and rainbows, they’d be the last thing on your mind. Simply being able to do everyday stuff like cross the road, would become a massive challenge without a radical change to your routines and lifestyle.

That is the reality for thousands of people with degenerative eye diseases like macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa – two of the leading causes of sight loss in industrial countries.

Thanks to UNSW researchers, people with degenerative eye diseases may very soon have some hope of an improved life. And while rainbows and sunsets may not be the same again, for someone threatened by the loss of sight altogether, the fact that they may be able to lead relatively normal lives would mean the world to them.

A clear goal in sight

In 1997, Gregg Suaning and Nigel Lovell had an idea – to build the world’s first bionic eye. But without funding, the project didn’t have legs. They ripped old stereos and
children’s toys apart to salvage electronic components for their devices, their offices and loungerooms were strewn with what would appear to the untrained eye to be junk.

Not at all daunted, and driven by passion and a clear goal, they worked tirelessly, and it paid off. Today, they are project leaders of a team of over 150 researchers in a $50 million joint project
involving UNSW, the Bionics Institute, the Centre for Eye Research Australia, NICTA and the University of Melbourne.

Find out more about the project at Bionic Vision Australia here.

And here.

How the bionic eye works

The bionic vision system consists of a camera, attached to a pair of glasses, which transmits high-frequency radio signals to a microchip implanted in the retina. Electrodes on the implanted chip convert these signals into electrical impulses to stimulate cells in the retina that connect to the optic nerve. These impulses are then passed down along the optic nerve to the vision processing centres of the brain, where they are interpreted as an image.

This technology is for people who have been able to see previously, and who therefore have a fully developed visual pathway from the retina to the brain along the optic nerve, as well as some intact retinal cells.

The first round of patient trials were promising and trials continue with the next generation of devices scheduled for testing in 2015.



Demands of the Bionic Eye device

Before an implantable device can be tested on humans, it needs to pass many tests to ensure it has the best chance of working. Our
bionic eye is no different. It needs to

  • be delicate but strong, stiff but flexible, soft but protective. 
  • withstand the stresses and strains of manufacturing, transport, surgery and implantation.
  • coexist with the tissue of the eye without causing or experiencing harm. 
  • be able to live in ‘salt water’ for up to 50 years – a place where your mobile phone wouldn’t survive one minute.

The implant then needs to be thoroughly tested to ensure that it is safe and can carry out its job – and this is important so we get the best results from our testing. 

At UNSW we are enormously proud that something built from by our hands, using ideas from our minds, can serve to improve someone’s life. This is what Biomedical Engineering is all about.