'Bionic eye' can allow blind people to see again

RECRUITMENT has begun for the first UK trial of a "bionic eye" which can restore sight to blind people.

The microchip implant has been tested in Germany, where it allowed patients to read letters and recognise objects.

Surgeons at King's College Hospital, London are now preparing for a follow-up study in the UK. They hope to select six patients for the trial, due to get under way in March. Another six patients will be treated at the Oxford Eye Hospital.

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The device, made by a German company, fits under the retina and works like a digital film camera. A 3mm sq array of 1,500 light sensors sends pulsed electrical signals to adjoining nerve cells, which relay the messages to the brain.

The implant is designed to help patients with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disorder which gradually destroys the retina. One in 3,000 people in the UK have the disease, some of whom have been made blind by the age of 30.

The pilot in Germany involved three blind patients. Within days of the surgery, the two men and one woman could locate a cup, saucer and different geometric shapes placed on a table. One patient was able to walk around a room with confidence, tell the time from a clock, distinguish between subtle shades of grey and read his name.

The results of the trial were published last month in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Surgeon Tim Jackson, who will head the King's College team, said: "We are delighted to be involved in testing this pioneering technology. The results demonstrated by the German team are genuinely impressive, and they represent an important step towards artificial vision that could greatly enhance the quality of life for people with an incurable, blinding disease."