Sight for Stevie Wonder?

The singer is interested in an experimental form of eye surgery.

Published December 3, 1999 1:00PM (EST)

Stevie Wonder is hoping that a new, pioneering form of eye surgery can restore the sight that he lost at birth. The 49-year-old musician says he hopes to undergo an operation to receive an intraocular retinal prosthesis, or IRP, a device that harnesses the powers of microtechnology to revitalize vision in the blind.

During the experimental procedure -- which has been performed on just a handful of patients in the United States on an experimental basis -- a microchip is inserted into the retina, the layer of cells at the back of the eye that converts light patterns into nerve impulses that travel to the brain. Any retina cells that have not been completely degenerated by disease are stimulated by the chip into functioning again. Images are transported to the chip via a camera that converts the external images into a series of electronic signals. The camera is mounted on a frame that the patient wears like eyeglasses.

A U.K. spokesperson for Motown, Wonder's recording label, told BBC News that it was not clear when Wonder is planning to undergo the surgery.

The musician announced his intention during a church service in Detroit, Mich. According to news reports, he told a 400-member congregation that included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, "I am about to undergo an operation that helps the blind to become sighted with the help of some sort of chip." Jackson related Wonder's announcement to reporters.

But Karen Infeld, a spokesperson at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center -- where Wonder is hoping to undergo the surgery -- isn't as optimistic. She says the procedure is designed mainly to benefit patients who have lost their sight gradually to degenerative diseases like macular degeneration, and may not be useful at all to Wonder because severe eye disease destroyed his sight at birth.

"[Wonder] has met with Dr. Mark S. Humayun to discuss the concept of the eye chip," Infeld says. "Although it was noted that it is not likely to benefit him, an offer was made to evaluate him."

Humayun and colleagues at the institute and other research institutions around the world have been working for several years to adapt recent advances in microelectronic technology to create implantable artificial vision systems like the IRP.

But even the futuristic IRP has limitations. In cases where the implant could be used, many of the patients' retina cells will be too deteriorated to be jump-started into functioning again, so the surgery can only offer the prospect of restoring partial vision.

According to Infeld, the IRP should be classified as "still in development," and doctors are unsure when the procedure will be available for routine use in patients.

By Jon Bowen

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.


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