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Bionic implant restores vision in man with age-related blindness

He’s the first patient with his condition to get the device.

Ray Flynn, an 80-year-old British retiree suffering from age-related vision loss, has become the first patient with his condition to receive a bionic eye implant. The surgically implanted device is wrapped around the back of Flynn's right eye and works in tandem with a video recorder and special glasses to help him see fully again.

Flynn has age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that leads to the deterioration of a small area of the retina known as the macula. It's one of the leading causes of vision loss in the United States and throughout the world, causing 5 percent of blindness globally. AMD greatly inhibits Flynn's eyesight, limiting his view to just his peripheral vision. "I'm unable to put the numbers in for my card when paying in a shop or at the bank, and although I was a keen gardener, I can't tell the weeds from the flowers anymore," Flynn told BBC News.

The system works by providing electrical stimulation to the damaged retina

Flynn is part of a clinical trial at Manchester Clinical Research Facility that will implant the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System into five patients with age-related macular degeneration. The Argus II — developed by US-based health care company Second Sight — has been used before to help those suffering from a rare condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. But Flynn became the first patient ever with AMD to receive the Argus II after a four-hour surgery at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital last month.

The system works by providing electrical stimulation to the damaged retina. Flynn must wear special glasses with a built-in video camera that rests in front of his right ear. The visual information gathered by the camera is wirelessly transmitted to the implant on the eye, which then uses electrodes to stimulate the retinal cells. That allows the eye to send the necessary visual signals to the brain for interpretation.

Two weeks after surgery, Flynn tested out the implant by looking at a series of black and white bars on a computer screen. With the Argus II system, he was able to tell when the bars were patterned vertically, horizontally, and diagonally. While Flynn can't see things as crisply as he did before his diagnosis, he'll now be able to make out distinct shapes like door frames. With the success of Flynn's surgery, the researchers hope the device will help others suffering from AMD to see again. But with a total price tag of more than $230,000, it's doubtful the Argus II will be a realistic option for patients any time soon.