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Eye Health

Updated 07 October 2019

‘I am so grateful to be a part of this trial,’ South African candidate says of scientific breakthrough

A brain implant has made a remarkable difference in allowing people without sight to detect motion and distinguish between light and dark.

For many people involved in a car accident, the road to recovery involves a number of obstacles. For Jason Esterhuizen, it left him in a world of complete darkness.

Hitting a curve and losing control of his car in December 2011 left then 23-year-old Esterhuizen seriously injured. His left eye had to be removed, and the optic nerve in his other eye was damaged. He was studying to become an airline pilot before the accident, a dream that was shattered in an instant.

“I have zero light perception, and all I see is total darkness,” he wrote on his blog in 2018.  

However, in 2015, things took a turn for the better when a good friend of his wrote a letter to a Californian engineering company, Second Sight Medical Products, who were busy with ground-breaking research into pioneering a bionic eye, capable of restoring sight to people with conditions that affect the retina. 

One of six people in the world

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) was about to run a trial with a device geared to people who used to be able to see, but lost their vision to injury or disease.

Only six people in the world stood a chance of being qualified to receive the implant.

It took four years of constant emailing before Esterhuizen was eventually invited to Los Angeles, he told Jacaranda FM

He underwent medical screening, an MRI, and psych evaluations to determine if he was a suitable candidate, he explained.

‘Like learning a new language’

Esterhuizen and five of the other candidates underwent brain surgery where the experimental cortical device, called Orian, was implanted onto the visual cortex (the part of your brain that works with your vision) in their brains.

Orian uses a camera that is attached to a pair of sunglasses. The device picks up images, and these images get translated through a little computer called a VPU (visual processing unit). This then sends micro impulses to the brain, which creates little white dots, allowing him to see patterns of light. 

While it doesn’t provide normal sight, it restores the capacity to detect movement and distinguish between light and dark.

jason esterhuizen

Jason credits a lot of his strength to his 'angel' who stood by him through thick and thin.

“These little white dots are making me see something in the world again. It’s like looking at the stars. It’s actually like learning a new language.

“It’s still a blast every time I turn it on,” Esterhuizen said. “After seeing absolutely nothing, to all of a sudden seeing little flickers of light move around and figuring out that they mean something. It’s just amazing to have some form of functional vision again.” 

Future plans for better results

“This is the first time we’ve had a completely implantable device that people can use in their own homes without having to be plugged into an external device,” said Dr Nader Pouratian, a neurosurgeon at UCLA Health and principal investigator of the five-year study. 

“It helps them recognise, for example, where a doorway is, where the sidewalk begins or ends or where the crosswalk is. These are all extremely meaningful events that can help improve people’s quality of life.”

At the moment, the implant stimulates the left side of the user’s brain, allowing them to perceive visual cues only from their right-side field of vision. However, the goal is to implant both sides of the brain to recover a full field of vision.

While the device won’t be a cure for vision loss, it will provide phenomenal visual perception and independence. 

First baseball game

Earlier this year, Esterhuizen played his very first beep baseball game where more than 200 blind and visually impaired players made their way to Oklahoma to compete.

“I was absolutely terrified going into this adventure as this would be the first time that I would travel unassisted to an unknown destination,” he wrote on his blog, later adding that everything went off smoothly.

After 18 months of using the device, he can now also clean and cook – things he wasn’t able to do after the accident.

“I will never see again, but I see lines, dots and the outlines of forms.

“With the device, I can walk and be more confident. I even sort out laundry,” he jokes.

Images: The Journey Out of Darkness

 

Ask the Expert

Optometrist

Megan Goodman qualified as an optometrist from the University of Johannesburg. She has recently completed a Masters degree in Clinical Epidemiology at Stellenbosch University. She has a keen interest in ocular pathology and evidence based medicine as well as contact lenses.

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