New device gives sight to the sightless

A retinal-replacement device is approved for use in Europe; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may not be far behind.

Jonathan LaPook Medical Correspondent
Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook
Jonathan LaPook
2 min read

retinal replacement device
The new retinal replacement device transmits light impulses to small electrodes implanted where damaged retinas used to be. CBS News

For the first time, a device that gives the sightless a second chance to see has been approved in Europe.

CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook reports that the FDA may do the same here soon.

Barbara Campbell lost her sight 20 years ago from retinal disease, but now her world is a lot brighter than it used to be. That's because 2 years ago, she was one of the first patients to get an artificial retina.

"My goal was to see colors and go the Grand Canyon," Campbell said.

With the new retinal-replacement device, Barbara does not see through her eyes. A small camera is mounted on these glasses and the images are converted to impulses that are sent to a transmitter on the side of the glasses.

The transmitter then beams the impulses to 60 electrodes that have been surgically implanted at the back of the eye. These electrodes bypass the damaged retinal cells and directly stimulate nerve cells connected to the visual center in the brain. She now sees a very crude image that has 60 points of light, compared to the millions of someone with healthy vision.

"It's not what you and I see but what it might be what you and I see in a figure that's out of focus or somebody who's moving in a dark and clouded room," said Dr. Lucian Del Priore with the New York-Presbyterian Hospital. "You can tell it's a human being but you're not going to see facial features."

Barbara, however, is grateful for even blurry images of simple things she thought she would never see again.

"Seeing the lights on in my house and the light in my refrigerator, I hadn't seen that in years," Barbara said. "Lights in the hallway, the entranceway to my building, all that stuff...it was very exciting."

More people may have access to the device soon. Later this year, the FDA will consider approval in the U.S. But at a $100,000, the cost of even limited sight will not be cheap.

This story originally appeared on CBSNews.com.