“I could see it. Just a little light. That’s all it was,” recalls 71-year-old Harold Churchey. Not a very dramatic statement-until you realize that Churchey is completely blind.
The sudden spark of vision in Churchey’s brain was caused by a jolt of electricity coming from the tip of an electrode introduced into his eye minutes earlier by ophthalmologists Eugene de Juan and Mark Humayun. Churchey could not see the men’s faces. But if he had, he might have witnessed their masks of professional anxiety give way to twin grins of “Eureka!” After all, the 1992 experiment at Duke University was a landmark in the fast-accelerating quest to give artificial sight to the blind.
De Juan and Humayun, now professors at the Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute, are among several teams of physicians, engineers and scientists moving to adapt advances in microelectronic technology to create implantable synthetic vision systems. The incredible prospect of bionic vision, says Terry Hambrecht, director of the National Institutes of Health’s Neural Prosthesis Program, was less-than-credible “even a few years ago. The technology wasn’t there, and neither was the neuroscience. But now a lot of basic research and device development are coming together to make it possible.”