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03/26/2013 04:49 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Bionic Eye: UCLA Researcher Wentai Liu Engineered Microchip That Helps The Blind See (VIDEO)

You could call him a miracle worker because he helps blind men see.

UCLA researcher Wentai Liu spent more than two decades developing a tiny computer chip that, when implanted in the retina, "tricks" a blind eye into seeing again. Last month, the FDA approved what he had been working on -- dubbed "the first bionic eye," Reuters reported.

The first patient, a man in his 70s who was blinded at age 20 by retinitis pigmentosa, is now able to locate large objects, read large letters and even discern some details of faces. “It was the first time he’d seen light in a half-century,” Liu said to UCLA, adding that “it feels good as the engineer” to have helped make this possible. Watch the video above to see how the device works.

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System operates with a miniature video camera mounted on a pair of eyeglasses that sends information about images it detects to a microprocessor worn on the user’s waistband, the National Science Foundation explains.

The microprocessor wirelessly transmits electronic signals to the integrated circuit that stimulates the retina’s nerve cells with electronic impulses which head up the optic nerve to the brain’s visual cortex. There, the brain assembles them into a composite image,

The microprocessor wirelessly transmits electronic signals to the computer chip, which stimulates the retina’s nerve cells with electronic impulses. The impulses travel up the optic nerve to the brain’s visual cortex, where the brain assembles them into a composite image.

In 1988, Dr. Mark Humayun, an ophthalmologist and neurosurgeon now at USC and the lead researcher on the project, tapped Liu to engineer the artificial retina.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Liu said to UCLA about the Artificial Retina Project. “But I asked, ‘What can I do?’ because I didn’t know much about biology.” Humayun handed him a six-inch-thick medical manual on the retina, according to UCLA. “The learning curve was very steep,” Liu said, laughing.

Over the next two decades, the technology of computer chips and batteries drastically progressed. Liu built on the research of others around the world to develop a chip small enough to be implanted in the delicate retina.

Liu and a team of UCLA engineering graduate students are working to improve the technology by increasing the resolution of images and by adding color. His lab is also working on devices to stop epileptic seizures, to help people who have lost their ability to speak and to re-activate facial muscles paralyzed by Bell’s palsy, UCLA reports.

“We’re engineering hope,” said Liu, whose parents were illiterate, as was everyone else in the small village in Taiwan where he was born. “Some things you can’t cure, but in almost every problem in the human body, engineering can intervene to subdue or mediate the process or even restore function," he said to UCLA.

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