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Brain Implant Helps Blind Man See In Whole New Language

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Technological innovations have helped a man blinded in a car accident to learn a new language of sight

South Africa’s 23-year-old Jason Esterhuizen was studying to become an airline pilot. After a December 2011 car accident, Jason awoke in a Pretoria, South Africa hospital… blind. His eyes had been destroyed in the accident. Jason’s former life — one that included flying airplanes, riding motorcycles, and driving a car — seemed to have disappeared.

In 2013, Jason heard a news item about a Sylmar, California company called Second Sight. Second Sight’s mission is “to restore useful vision to the blind and severely visually impaired.” The story that Jason heard was about a retinal implant that Second Sight had designed to help people with retinitis pigmentosa. That wasn’t Jason’s situation, so the device could do nothing for him. But by 2018, things had changed. Second Sight went on to develop a brain implant that could help Jason.

Second Sight’s ‘Orion’

Second Sight’s experimental device, called Orion, is an implant designed to provide artificial vision for people rendered blind by things like glaucoma, diabetes, nerve injury or disease, and injury. At the time that Jason learned about the organization, implants to respond to blindness were not new. Electrodes could be implanted behind the eye of blind patients with some functioning cells. In those cases, no brain surgery is required. Orion is different.

According to Neurosurgeon Dr. Nader Pouratian, who treated Esterhuizen, “you don’t even need to have eyes for the device to work.” Orion consists of a pair of glasses with a camera and a video processing unit. The system also includes a brain implant the size of a postage stamp and containing 60 electrodes. That implant is placed in the part of the brain that processes visual information, called the visual cortex. What happens? An article by Baylor College of Medicine explains it this way:

The Orion uses a camera mounted on a pair of eyeglasses to capture images, and then delivers a pattern of stimulation directly to the brain that is designed to produce a percept of a corresponding visual image.

Jason did not hesitate to join a six-patient clinical trial at UCLA and Baylor working with the Orion device, even though it meant relocating from South Africa to Los Angeles, and all of the risks of brain implant surgery.

What does Jason see?

Jason doesn’t see color, shapes or edges, though he can perceive the difference between light and dark. He can recognize moving objects and has some depth perception. Jason perceives people and objects as dots of light, which multiply the closer the person or object gets. Interpreting those dots means learning a wholly different language.

For the first time in over seven years, he saw birthday candles on his cake thanks to Orion. And his ability to see and perceive increases week to week as researchers learn from his experience, and that of others in the study.

Orion isn’t a magic solution for all people affected by blindness. The medical procedures can be dangerous; Jason experienced a seizure after implantation. Patients will need to be followed for years due to potential complications and the lifespan of implants is unknown because they will cause scar tissue. As a result, patients accept the fact that they might later lose the sight they regain. In addition, Orion will only help patients born with sight since people born blind have not developed the brain’s ability to process visual information.

But for Jason Esterhuizen, the Orion device and trial has meant a new life, though not the one he’d pictured before his accident. Follow his journey during the Orion trial — one that includes a wedding, baseball played, fireworks seen, and myriad adventures — at his blog Journey out of darkness.

Who’s to know how many people will benefit from Jason’s commitment to and experience of this trial?

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