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For 10 years, Allen Zderad was unable to see his wife or the 10 grandkids in his family. But thanks to “bionic” eye technology developed a company called Second Sight, Zderad can now see his wife Carmen and accomplish plenty more.
Zderad suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that affects the eye’s retina. His vision degenerated so much that he was only able to see very bright light. But the grandfather was given the opportunity to become the first patient for a clinical trial of an implant that would eventually let him see his wife.
Raymond Iezzi Jr., M.D., researcher and ophthalmologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, oversaw Zderad’s trial. Iezzi is treating Zderad’s grandson who has the early stages of the genetic condition.
“I’m just humbled and tremendously impressed by [Zderad]. I think he’s an inspiration to us all,” Iezzi said in a video. “To be able to have offered him the retinal prosthesis to enhance what he can already do was great honor for me. It’s something that we’ve worked for decades to develop and Mr. Zderad, I think, is the perfect candidate.”
The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is a retinal implant that allows patients to see objects by sending light directly to the optic nerve, effectively avoiding the damaged retina. The patient wears a pair of glasses containing a video camera, which then sends video to a processor. The data is broken down into instructions sent back to the glasses.
According to Second Sight, the instructions are then sent to a configuration of electrodes that can emit small pulses of electricity that stimulate cells in the eye. This translate into visual data for the brain.
Zderad is the 15th person in the U.S. to receive the bionic eye. He will still have to go through hours of physical therapy to use the device properly, and although he can’t see exact details of people and objects, he can make out the forms of objects including furniture and humans—including the silhouette of his wife.
“It’s a very delicate device and it’s an array of electrodes that actually have to lay on a curve surface in the back of the eye where the retina is,” Iezzi explained. “We place an electronics package around the eye, fixate that electronics package, and then we enter through the eye wall, through the white part of the eye with an electrode that’s six by 10 electrodes.”
When Zderad finally saw his wife, he lept out of his seat with joy, and his reaction brought tears to the eyes of onlookers at the Mayo Clinic.
Selena Larson is a technology reporter based in San Francisco who writes about the intersection of technology and culture. Her work explores new technologies and the way they impact industries, human behavior, and security and privacy. Since leaving the Daily Dot, she's reported for CNN Money and done technical writing for cybersecurity firm Dragos.