“Honest to God, that felt like Christmas Day”: Blind woman with bionic eye on what it’s like to read a clock again

Rhian Lewis, from Cardiff.
Rhian Lewis, from Cardiff.
Image: Courtesy of BBC
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It had been over a decade since she was able to see clearly into the world. Retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease, had caused Rhian Lewis’s eyes to deteriorate since she was five years old—leaving the 49-year-old with complete blindness in her right eye and very limited sight in the other, as she worked and tended to her two children in Cardiff, Wales every day.

This summer, though, Lewis got the news of a lifetime. She would be the first person in the UK to receive the world’s most advanced bionic eye, which has so far only been tested in Germany.

The three-millimeter device—made by German firm Retina Implant AG and surgically placed into Lewis’s right eye by doctors at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital in an operation in June that lasted over six hours—replaces an eye’s natural light-sensitive retinal cells, and connects to a small computer that sits under a wearer’s skin by the ear. When the system is turned on with a magnetic coil, the bionic eye sends signals to the optic nerve and brain.

“I was absolutely terrified, because I didn’t know what to expect at all,” Lewis says about the procedure in a forthcoming (Jan. 6) episode of the BBC’s Trust Me, I’m a Doctor. 

After the operation, surgeons switched the coil on and asked Lewis if she could see flashing lights on a computer; she could. Though she couldn’t distinguish specific objects on the first day, her abilities were much improved on the second try—enough for her to step outside.

Robert McLaren, an Oxford professor who is leading the research on the subject, called the process one of “rehabilitation,” since wearers of the technology basically have to reactivate a part of the brain that’s been put out of use for more than 10 years.

“There was a car, a silver car and I couldn’t believe it, because the signal was really strong and that was the sun shining on the silver car. And I was just, well, I was just so excited, I was quite teary,” Lewis says. “Now, when I locate something, especially like a spoon or a fork on the table, it’s pure elation, you know. I just get so excited that I’ve got something right.”

Lewis has a handheld wireless power supply for the device, with which she can also adjust sensitivity, frequency, and contrast if needed. The implanted chip has the resolution of less than 1% of a megapixel (much lower than that of a standard smartphone camera) but connects to the human brain’s 100 billion neurons of processing power.

If the technology continues to be successful in other patients, it may eventually be made available for widespread use in battling other eye diseases, too.