Artificial Retina (2011) Project

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Scientists through the US Department of Energy are testing artificial retinas that they hope can restore partial sight to people who've lost their vision to the most common causes of blindness.

The Sylmar, Calif., company produced the devices for the U.S. Energy Department's Artificial Retina Project. The department has been engaged in biological research since the atomic bomb tests of the 1950s raised fears of radiation poisoning.

The current version is being tested on 17 blind people in the U.S. and Europe, and more patients are being enrolled. At a retina conference in October, patients reported improvements in orientation and mobility. They were able to find a door from 20 feet away and to follow a line on the floor for 20 feet, Mech reported.

Meanwhile, researchers in the Energy Department's National Laboratories are creating a third-generation artificial retina. Much smaller than its predecessors, the device will contain 200 or more electrodes on a thin, flexible film that curves to fit the shape of the retina. Human tests are scheduled to begin in 2011.

According to WHO estimates, the five most common causes of blindness around the world in 2002 were: cataracts (47.9%), glaucoma (12.3%), age-related macular degeneration (8.7%), corneal opacity (5.1%), and diabetic retinopathy (4.8%).