A Blind Man Sees His Birthday Candles Again, Thanks to a Bionic Eye

A Blind(blīnd) Man Sees His Birthday Candles Again, Thanks to a Bionic(bīˈänik) Eye

A brain(brān) implant(imˈplant) helped restore his sight after a tragic(ˈtrajik) car crash

By Emily Mullin

December 2011, a horrific(həˈrifik) car accident(ˈaksədənt) knocked(näk) Jason(ˈjāsən) Esterhuizen unconscious(ˌənˈkänSHəs). When he woke up in a hospital in Pretoria(prəˈtôrēə), South Africa(ˈafrəkə), hours away from his hometown, he couldn’t see. The crash had destroyed his eyes and left him completely blind.

Esterhuizen was devastated(ˈdevəˌstāt). At the time, he was 23 and studying to become an airline pilot(ˈpīlət). The first two years after the accident were the hardest. “Life changes in an instant,” he tells OneZero. “I used to fly airplanes and ride motorcycles(ˈmōdərˌsīk(ə)l) and drive(drīv) my own car.”

Esterhuizen eventually got mobility(mōˈbilədē) training and learned how to read braille(brāl), use assistive(əˈsistiv) devices, and work on a computer. Then, in 2013, he tuned(t(y)o͞on) in to a TV news segment(ˈseɡmənt) about a company developing a brain implant that could create artificial(ˌärdəˈfiSHəl) vision for people like him. Second Sight, based in Sylmar, California, had just won approval(əˈpro͞ovəl) in the United States for a retinal(ˈretn(ə)l) implant designed to assist people with blindness caused by a rare(re(ə)r) genetic(jəˈnedik) disorder called retinitis(ˌretnˈīdəs) pigmentosa(ˈpiɡmənt). Esterhuizen wasn’t a candidate(ˈkandiˌdāt, ˈkandidət) for that device, but by 2018 the company had developed a brain implant that could change his life.

Now part of a small clinical(ˈklinək(ə)l) trial(ˈtrī(ə)l), Esterhuizen is one of six blind patients to receive the experimental device, called the Orion(əˈrīən). It’s meant to provide artificial vision to people who have gone blind from a wide range of causes, including glaucoma(glôˈkōmə), diabetic(ˌdīəˈbedik) retinopathy(ˌretnˈäpəTHē), optic(ˈäptik) nerve(nərv) injury or disease, and eye injury. If it works and is proven safe, it and other brain implants could potentially help many more people who are blind.