Contemporary approaches to visual prostheses

Mil Med Res. 2019 Jun 5;6(1):19. doi: 10.1186/s40779-019-0206-9.


Visual prostheses serve to restore visual function following acquired blindness. Acquired blindness (as opposed to congenital blindness) has many causes, including diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa, glaucoma, and macular degeneration, or trauma such as caused by automobile accident or blast damage from explosions. Many of the blindness-causing diseases target the retina or other ocular structure. Often, despite the loss of sensitivity to light, the remainder of the visual pathway is still functional, enabling electrical devices to deliver effective and meaningful visual information to the brain via arrays of electrodes. These arrays can be placed in any part of the early visual pathway, such as the retina, optic nerve, lateral geniculate nucleus, or visual cortex. A camera or other imaging source is used to drive electrical stimulation of remaining healthy cells or structures to create artificial vision and provide restoration of function. In this review, each approach to visual prostheses is described, including advantages and disadvantages as well as assessments of the current state of the art. Most of the work to-date has been targeting stimulation of (a) the retina, with three devices approved for general use and two more in clinical testing; (b) the lateral geniculate nucleus, with efforts still in the pre-clinical stage; and (c) the cortex, with three devices in clinical testing and none currently approved for general use despite the longest history of investigation of the three major approaches. Each class of device has different medical indications, and different levels of invasiveness required for implantation. All contemporary devices deliver relatively poor vision. There has been remarkable progress since the first proof-of-concept demonstration that used stimulation of the primary visual cortex, with the field exploring all viable options for restoration of function. Much of the progress has been recent, driven by advances in microelectronics and biocompatibility. With three devices currently approved for general use in various parts of the world, and a handful of additional devices well along in the pipeline toward approval, prospects for wide deployment of a device-based therapy to treat acquired blindness are good.

Keywords: Artificial vision; Blindness; Visual prosthesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Blindness / therapy*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy*
  • Humans
  • Optic Nerve / physiology*
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*
  • Visual Prosthesis*