Background: Retinal implants are intended to replace photoreceptors in patients suffering from degenerative retinal diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa. Data show that photodiodes in subretinal implants are not powerful enough to stimulate overlying retinal tissue by simply transforming light energy into electrical energy. Therefore, infrared (IR) irradiation has been envisioned to supply additional energy. While epiretinal implants mostly use induction coils for wireless energy transfer, IR irradiation seems to be an additional option. This study investigated the feasibility of an IR energy supply for an active subretinal implant by assessing thermal effects of IR irradiation onto the rabbit retina.
Methods: Polyimide foil strips carrying an optical sensor as well as a thermal sensor were implanted into the subretinal space of the eyes of nine rabbits using a transchoroidal surgical approach. The area of the thermal sensor was irradiated by an IR laser (830 nm) focused on the device. The sensor provided simultaneous real-time measurements of absolute temperature and irradiation density, allowing direct correlation of the temperature increase to different intensities of IR irradiation. Possible IR-related damage to the retina was examined in histological sections. Temperature changes in living and dead animals were evaluated as a function of IR irradiation power of between 0.1 mW and 40 mW (0.03 mW/mm2-12.7 mW/mm2).
Results: We found an exponential relationship between IR irradiation power and temperature increase over the whole range (up to 12.7 mW/mm2) in the living animal. The maximum temperature increase caused by IR irradiation of 40 mW (12.7 mW/mm2) was 4.5 degrees C. The ratio of temperature increase to IR irradiation density postmortem (i.e., without ocular blood flow) was linear over the whole range, with 1.15 degrees C per 1 mW/mm2. Thus, the cooling effect of ocular blood flow varied depending on IR irradiance density. In histological sections, no IR-induced damage to the retina was detected.
Conclusions: A temperature increase of 3.2 degrees C in the living rabbit eye is to be expected when powering a subretinal implant with 15 mW (4.8 mW/mm2) IR power, the wattage used in an external power supply for an active implant with 1,500 electrodes. This appears to be a tolerable increase for ocular tissue.