Surgeons at the University of Michigan Health System have made the first officially FDA-approved "bionic eye" transplants, allowing patients with a degenerative eye disease to make out light and shapes. The Michigan Daily reports that on January 16th and 22nd, two surgeons successfully implanted the Argus II artificial retina, which is composed of a sheet of electrodes fixed to the eye. The implant is paired with a pair of camera-equipped glasses and a processor that captures video from the glasses. That video is then sent as a series of pulses to the electrodes, stimulating the patient's remaining nerve fibers.

Argus II doesn't provide anything like what what we'd think of as normal sight. Instead, it lets patients see flashes of light that they can learn to read as visual patterns. That process of learning takes between one to three months, says Thiran Jayasundera, one of the surgeons who transplanted the retina. It's far from perfect, but it restores some sight to people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition that causes degraded sight and, ultimately, blindness. It's possible to slow the condition's progress, but something like the Argus II is needed to actually restore vision.

The artificial retina had already been tested by about 50 people worldwide when it was approved by the FDA in early 2013. Since then, Argus developer Second Sight has designated 12 centers — including UMHS — to conduct the procedure on a wider range of patients. In Europe, officials have also approved a second artificial retina: the higher-resolution Alpha IMS, which requires no glasses and allows more freedom of movement, since users can simply look around instead of turning their head to capture video. A pre-approval pilot program saw the Alpha IMS successfully implanted in eight patients and unsuccessfully implanted in one.