DETROIT -- A "bionic eye" may now help blind patients regain at least a sense of vision.
Linda Schulte, the first patient with the implanted technology since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year, couldn't be more thrilled.
Not long ago, her new "eye" homed in on the stripe on her grandson's T-shirt while he was outside on the driveway at her Ottawa, Ohio, home.
There were flashes of light and movement and — combined with the bounce of a basketball on pavement — the 66-year-old Schulte said she could "see" her grandson for the first time.
"To me, it was seeing him," she said. "I know I'll never see his face, but I could judge how tall he is and everything. I knew where he was moving."
The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, offered at the University of Michigan's Kellogg Eye Center, was surgically implanted in Schulte's left eye in January.
It uses a pair of glasses with a small video camera that wirelessly transmits signals to Schulte's implant, converting them into a series of small electrical pulses that stimulate her retina's remaining cells.
The result: Flashes of light that signal great contrast – the outline of a window or the edges of a white plate against a black tablecloth, for example.
It takes some practice, but "by using those flashing lights as a cue, (patients) can trace the plate," said Dr. Thiran Jayasundera, a retina surgeon at Kellogg.
He is scheduled to talk about the procedure during a meeting of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery Friday in Boston.
The device is used for those who have retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease in which patients experience a gradual loss of side vision and night vision, and later of central vision, which can result in near blindness.
Not all of the 100,000 or so people in the U.S. with retinitis pigmentosa can benefit from the bionic eye. An estimated 10,000 have vision low enough, said Dr. Brian Mech, an executive with Second Sight Medical Products Inc., the Sylmar, Calif.-based company that makes the device. Of those, about 7,500 are eligible for the surgery.
Schulte was 22 when sunlight began to hurt, she said. Over the next two decades, her visual world shrank. She began to lose peripheral vision. And at some point, her tunnel vision was so tight that, when she looked across the dinner table at her husband, she could see only one of his eyes at a time.
In earlier stages of the clinical trial with the prosthetic retina, many participants were able to locate lights and windows, follow lines in a crosswalk, and avoid running into things as they walked. About half were able to read letters that were about 9-inches high. Some could sort laundry or determine where other people were located in a room.
Roger Pontz, 55, received his new eye in January as well. He now moves around his Reed City, Mich., home without having to use his hands to avoid running into walls. He sees figures move in front of him. His wife asked whether he could see her empty oatmeal bowl the other day at a restaurant. He answered by immediately putting his fingers on it.
Pontz, a dishwasher at a bowling alley, said he is convinced that his training exercises will continue to grow his visual abilities.
"But if it doesn't, I'm happy with what I've got so far," he said.
Contributing: The Associated Press