Cruising from Amsterdam to Budapest aboard a floating hotel gives the mind time to ponder the state of humanity, which on the whole is doing better than we often give it credit for.
Europe, which gets 30 percent of its natural gas from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is uneasy about the coming winter. But then Europe is always uneasy about something – economics (high unemployment), migration from African and Islamic lands (rising and worrisome), the Ebola virus (no flights from affected countries). The list goes on.
But amidst all this is Larry Hester of Durham. Hester isn’t here, but he has name recognition for one singular fact: His bionic eye. The one he got last month at Duke University Medical Center.
When the light returned for Hester, he had been in darkness for 30 years, the victim of sight-robbing retinosis pigmentosa. His story went global, and it was of particular interest in Europe, where research into different means of achieving artificial sight has been under way for years.
To say that Hester’s sight was restored is a gross exaggeration of the science behind his Argus II Retinal Prosthesis Device. The Argus II gave him limited pattern recognition, one of the brain’s signal attributes and without which we humans wouldn’t have made it very far from the caves.
Only Hester, the seventh American fitted with the Argus II, knows how effective it is. But if you are blind one moment and can see light the next, the Argus II is very effective indeed.
Hester told his Duke physicians that he could see contours and silhouettes, even a representation of the harvest moon. His bionic vision at this stage is heavily pixilated. That likely won’t change, so his brain must learn to process and interpret the images.
Hester’s Argus II is a product of Second Sight Therapeutics and was developed with $25 million in federal aid – surely some of the best-spent tax dollars one can imagine.
The Argus II’s front end consists of a micro-camera mounted on a spectacle frame, rather like Google Glass. The camera image flows by wireless to a tiny panel of electrodes implanted onto Hester’s left retina. The electrodes excite ganglion cells to produce the rough images that Hester sees.
Anything and everything that he sees comes through the 60 pixels on the retinal implant (high-definition television consists of 2 million pixels.) His field of vision is about 20 degrees, compared to 270 degrees for a sighted person.
With the exception of limited image processing in the 1.5 million ganglion cells, vision occurs in the brain.
It is a process so refined over eons of evolution, so well tuned to the visual spectrum that gives us precise color vision, that no artificial means of sight is likely to come close to what nature has engineered.
Larry Hester’s sight, near-miraculous as it is, positions him at the beginning of the quest for true artificial vision. To get here from the discovery that electricity can produce flashes of light in the blind to the Argus II has taken 250 years.
It couldn’t have been done without the miniaturization of electronics over the last 50 years, beginning with the invention of the integrated circuit.
The next step might come from several different approaches. One of them bypasses the eyes and optic nerves entirely. A camera transmits computer-processed images to an electrode implanted in the brain’s visual cortex, perhaps eventually producing higher resolution than the Argus II.
Whatever method or methods of restoring even a modicum of vision emerge as a standard will be hailed by the world’s estimated 40 million blind as a gift beyond price.
Larry Hester and his surgeon, Dr. Paul Hahn, are the medical equivalents of the great navigators, seeking a Northwest Passage for the betterment of humanity with extraordinary courage.
When we read with dismay of the worst our kind can do, let’s remember the better angels of our nature. They are among us at Duke Medical Center.