Bionic Eye Implant Enables Blind UK Woman to Detect Visual Signals

Dhillon Hirani
February 16, 2022

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a chronic eye condition that can develop into a complication known as geographic atrophy (GA) resulting in permanent blind spots in the eye. Scientists in France have developed the Prima System device which will help restore some level of vision in patients with GA, and an 88-year woman from East London is the first patient to be the beneficiary of it. The system involves the patient wearing special glasses which have a video camera attached. A small 2mm microchip is inserted under the patient’s retina (the back of the eye) which then receives light signals from the video camera. The chip is then able to replicate the function of our photoreceptor cells and convert these light signals into nerve impulses that travel to the brain as if it was normal vision. However, sight is more than simply a snapshot of what we see and so to focus and direct the glasses, signals are also sent to a small device attached to a waistband which uses clever AI to ensure the camera video is focused on the main object of the scene to re-create normal vision. This treatment could be life-changing in giving blind patients a chance to see again and regain their independence in living their life.

Food for Thought

AI in healthcare

Part of this Prima system involves the use of Artificial Intelligence to calculate where the plane of focus of the image should be. This is just one example of the use of AI in medicine, with AI being used more and more to assist healthcare workers in clinical practice. AI has been invaluable so far in improving the efficiency of healthcare by automating simple tedious tasks like automatically booking appointments or reminding patients to come in for their smear test. However, the real potential of AI is in both the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Could we use AI to read Chest X rays or ECGs? Could robotic surgery become the norm and potentially be conducted by a surgeon halfway across the world via 5G? Read more about AI in healthcare and the future of it here.

Postcode Lottery

Treatments such as a bionic eye implant can be very expensive and if it is found to be very effective, a decision will have to be made as to the appropriate criteria for which patients are eligible to have it on the NHS. However, in the past, expensive treatments on the NHS haven’t quite been as evenly accessible as the word ‘national’ in ‘National Health Service’ would suggest. A common example of this is accessibility to fertility treatment. The NHS split the funding it receives regionally into local CCGs (clinical commissioning groups) who then allocate it accordingly in the area. With different areas having different demands, this can have an impact on whether a CCG will fund certain expensive treatments or not. National guidelines recommend that couples under 40 generally should be offered 3 full cycles of IVF under the NHS, however, the reality is that only 23 out of 135 CCGs in England offer this service, with South England being particularly stringent.

Practice Interview QUestions
  1. Do you think AI could one day replace the need for healthcare professionals like doctors? Why?
  2. Where do you think AI could have the most impact in medicine globally? What about in the NHS?
  3. What would you say to a couple who wanted fertility treatment but your local CCG would not fund it?
  4. How can we stop a postcode lottery of healthcare from occurring? If not all CCGs can offer a service, should it not be funded at all in order to be fair to everyone?
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