For the first time since going blind 15 years ago, Barbara Campbell realized her life would improve dramatically when she discovered she could see the entry light shining in her Manhattan apartment building.
Campbell, 56, has been blind since her early 30's due to progressive retinitis pigmentosa diagnosed at age 13. She is one of 17 U.S. and 21 international participants in a three-year FDA trial of a new retinal implant device created by Second Sight Medical Products, Inc., of Sylmar, CA. The device uses a 60-electrode array, only the thickness of a hair, surgically implanted and attached to the retina, enabling people with damaged photoreceptor cells to sense light and dark. Using a small camera mounted on sunglasses, and a belt-worn video processor, images are converted into electrical patterns and transmitted via the electrodes, to still-functioning layers of the retina. While the patterns produced by the current device have low resolution, there are plans for versions with 200 to 1,000 electrodes, which might provide enough definition to enable users to read.
An energetic, warm and dynamic professional, Barbara is a vocational rehabilitation counselor for New York's Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped in Manhattan. She has referred clients to Lighthouse International for vocational and life skills training for nearly 20 years.
In April 2009, it was Barbara's turn to benefit from her relationship with Lighthouse International. Her contact there told her about the Second Sight trial being conducted by Dr. Aries Arditi, a senior fellow in vision science for the organization's Arlene R. Gordon Research Institute. Campbell didn't hesitate to be a part of the ground-breaking trial. The 5-hour surgical procedure to implant the electrodes behind her left eye, performed in June at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital was only the beginning. Within a week, she was hard at work with Dr. Arditi learning to use her artificial retina.
Dr. Arditi is best known for his pioneering work in research relating to low vision function and visual accessibility. "I have always been interested in how people with limited visual capabilities can exploit them," he says. "This project helps transform people from being blind to having low vision. Until now, we've seen people with vision problems experience only progressive vision loss. The good news is that now we can take someone who is totally blind and reverse this process so that they have at least some limited vision."
Barbara rested a week following her surgery, then began her weekly practice sessions in Dr. Arditi's lab. After only a week, she reported sensations of light. After two months, Barbara took the device home to test its use for tasks in her daily routine and to practice seeing black and white line patterns on the computer screen. Her tenacity and determination to get the most benefit from her artificial retina have inspired her to practice at home almost daily for 30 minutes.
By her three month assessment, she was excited that she was experiencing more light at home. She could see the burners on her stove when making a grilled cheese sandwich. Barbara was also increasing the number of correct responses on her home practice tests to identify computerized linear patterns.
In a darkened lab at Lighthouse International, Barbara sits for more than two hours responding to computer screen patterns of white and dark directional and moving lines. A computerized voice cues her when the image is on the screen, when to respond, and when to stop. Dr. Arditi observes her responses.
"In the past two weeks, I feel my performance has improved dramatically," Barbara notes in an upbeat tone. "This will change my life in major ways. While I have not used Second Sight outside on my own, it will give me more visual cues from my environment and will increase my self confidence and independence."
Barbara continues to live a full independent life, working, enjoying theatre and traveling to North Carolina to care for her niece. However, she is hopeful that the new technology will help make her life even better. While this device will not give her back her full eye sight, it is already helping her to experience more of her surroundings.
"I was always optimistic that I might regain my vision. But I never thought this kind of technology would exist in my lifetime," she reflects. "This is only the beginning." Lighthouse International and Dr. Arditi would heartily agree.