Optimum 20-20 Vision With Bionic Eye Implants: Should We Focus on the Neural or Ocular?

concept bionic eye

Can bionic eye implants be the solution to long-term ey disorders, or could bionic eye implants be an option for people who want to enhance their body parts?

A healthy mix of neural and ocular developments is, of course, ideal when attempting to restore or replicate human eyesight. But if we are to choose only one, it’s probably more beneficial in the long run to focus on the neural side, as it could pull in so many more applications from other medical research projects.

Unfortunately, because the human brain isn’t a straightforward binary machine like our electronic devices, pushing forward neural advancements is far more challenging than it looks. Plus, depending on the medical condition, some steps might not actually even be necessary.

Neural and Ocular Bionic Eye Applications Overview

man with Bionic Eye Implants
Image credit by Glogger via Wikimedia Commons

The key points in the current advancement of bionic eye technologies from the perspective of neural research and ocular research are as follows:

  • Detect sensory information and process it for the brain. Basically, recreating a functional artificial retina that delivers rudimentary light information in the form of shapes and shadows. Though it’s now mostly considered obsolete, many blind people still had their lives completely changed for the better thanks to this pioneering innovation.
  • Convert digital imaging data into something the brain can understand. This is the primary discipline of technologies that attempt solutions for more severe cases that prevent the use of any retina-like implants. It’s also the jumping-off point for any experimental ideas that dabble with direct brain-machine interfacing for the same purpose.
  • Refine all methods of operation to provide “higher” levels of artificial eyesight. This can be as simple as improving conductivity between the tiny composite materials used or as advanced as using current-generation computer models and simulations of actual retinal activity. Nothing substantial has come of this at the moment (as of this article’s publishing), of course, but it holds the promise of improved operational efficiency.
  • Alter light absorption properties of the eye. Some less severe eye disorders could be just a bit beyond the reach of standard prescription glasses or contact lenses. In that case, bionic eye implants specifically designed to dynamically adjust light focus or intensity could be the next best solution.
  • Provide additional visual information beyond what the eye can normally provide, either in the form of augmented reality or the ability to transcend the visible spectrum. These are typically options that even those who have normal eyesight would benefit from, but can be theoretically integrated alongside the other methods above.

Where Neural Development for Bionic Eye Implants is Headed

Based on what we can do now, and what is being considered in the future, we can safely surmise that neural data processing development does not have to be closely related to eye disorders. As such, brain-machine interfaces would most likely provide the biggest benefit for bionic eyes by simply improving the basic abilities of the technology itself. In other words, by making neural implants better at translating brain signals overall, we should see bionic eye implants get better as well.

The reasoning is simple: better understanding leads to more openings for innovations. Once we get a crack at the decentralized operational nature of the brain, we could also simultaneously get a glimpse of how signals related to light transduction works. Researchers can then reverse engineer their way towards the neural pathways between the retina and the brain. Whatever information we get this time, we could get a more accurate picture (literally) of what the eyes tell our brain.

Additionally, having intimate, advanced knowledge of these signals also lets us design standardized electronic devices that could translate these signals back and forth with much higher detail. Like, at a level where HD cameras could actually show the human brain what it sees. Elon Musk, for instance, claims that Neuralink has the potential to “resolve issues with eyesight and hearing”, based simply on how it functions as a gateway between the physical world and the electronic world.

Where Ocular Development for Bionic Implants is Headed

But of course, the basic tool for receiving those signals in the first place would still fall into all related fields of eye augmentation. You don’t necessarily have to give up on the eyes completely just yet; merely provide the necessary enhancements that would bridge the gap between the neural and the ocular. In this case, each research project branches out to provide specialization to bionic eyes based on the kind of eye disorder it’s treating.

This case-by-case approach offers three major benefits:

  • We can compensate for the lack of universal eye replacements right now. Geordi LaForge’s auto-analyzing artificial eyeballs may be a fantasy today. But bits and pieces of their features can already be provided to visually impaired patients depending on which issue truly needs fixing.
  • “Upgrades” can be provided to otherwise healthy individuals. With the express consent of the individual that can still perfectly see, they may consciously choose to use these augmentations themselves. It’s not exactly an option when your eyeballs have been gouged out in place of a high-tech ocular prosthesis talking to your brain, though.
  • Medical procedures using these bionic eye implants are way less invasive (at the moment). Unnecessary complications such as eye infections and immune system rejections are far less likely to occur. This also makes it easier and less expensive to access.

Indeed, for the foreseeable future, eye disorder-specific retina and lens-based treatments will remain good options for restoring eye function while we wait for brain-machine interfaces to develop further.

But… How About Natural Regenerative Technologies?

All of our discussions about bionic eye implants so far have focused on the artificial aspect, the idea that you can replace something natural with a synthetic component. That said, as the next few decades pass by, we can also expect that more natural procedures, such as corneal transplantation, are going to be developed further to compensate.

Before you get excited at the idea, no. Humans, by default, are incapable of reversing retinal damage or any critical injuries to the eye. The development gap is too wide right now anyway, so regenerative technologies can never really catch up along the same line. That doesn’t stop researchers from considering and discussing the idea, however. After all, the human eyeball is considered an organ of the human body. There may be a way just yet to incorporate the same undeveloped concept of stem cell regeneration. Just don’t expect magical results within this decade.

But if we could grow some stem cells in a lab and train them to become ocular organs the same way as future cardiovascular organs can be reformed, would it drive a wedge between the conflict of neural and ocular-focused bionic eye implants?

We’d actually have to conclude yes. Assuming that neural interfacing technologies can find their way into other applications, this could affect ocular prosthetics more, particularly in the way the commercial sector is going to accept them within the next few years.

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