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Friday, 3 December, 1999, 12:25 GMT
Stevie Wonder's eye operation
Eye The eye processes light as nervous impulses

Pop singer Stevie Wonder is to undergo pioneering surgery in an attempt to restore the eyesight he lost just hours after his birth. The experimental procedure, developed at Johns Hopkins University, has only been carried out on about 15 patients in the US, and then only on a temporary basis.

The procedure makes use of state-of-the-art technology that can stimulate the eye to start to see again.

A microchip is inserted into the retina, the layer of cells at the back of the eye that converts light patterns into a series of nervous impulses.

These impulses are fed back to the brain along the optic nerve to be re-processed back into images.

Once inserted into a blind person, the microchip can stimulate any retina cells that have not completely degenerated to start to function again.

Images are fed to the microchip via an external camera that locks onto an image and converts it into a series of electronic signals.

The camera is mounted in a frame very similar to a pair of spectacles.

Partial restoration of sight

Stevie Wonder Stevie Wonder hopes to regain his sight
The operation can only offer the prospect of a partial restoration of vision as many of the cells of in the retina will not function at all.

In addition, the microchip only has 25 receptors, compared with more than a million in a properly functioning eye.

Experts believe the new procedure may only be effective for people suffering from two specific conditions that cause blindness:

  • Retinitis pigmentosa - an inherited condition that gradually destroys the cells of the retina

  • Macular degeneration - breakdown of the cells in the retina on to which light is focused and which allow us to see fine detail

Also, until now doctors have only been able to leave the chip inserted for a short time because the technology has not been adapted to work outside the operating theatre.

Neither has the procedure been officially approved by the US authorities.

Edmund McMahon-Turner, spokesman for Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, said regular use of the new technique was at least five years away.

He said: "Stevie Wonder will not be able to see his children's faces, but if the procedure works he will be able to set a head in a bright room.

"But if this technology is developed successfully it could be a great step forward and could potentially make a huge amount of difference to people."

Mr McMahon-Turner said alternative ways of restoring vision were being worked on.

These include growing replacement retinas in test tubes, or transplant operations.

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See also:
03 Dec 99 |  Entertainment
Stevie Wonder bids to regain sight
08 Jul 99 |  Health
Protein breakthrough could slow sight loss

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