PURPOSE: The perception of 11 persons blinded by hereditary retinal degeneration elicited by a subretinally implanted 16-electrode array used for light-independent direct stimulation of the retina is described. This device is part of the Tubingen retina implant, which also employs a light-sensitive, multiphotodiode array (MPDA). The ability to reliably recognize complex spatial percepts was investigated.
METHODS: Eleven blind volunteers received implants and participated in standardized psychophysical tests investigating the size and shape of perceptions elicited by single-electrode activation, multiple-electrode activation, and activation of compound patterns such as simplified letters.
RESULTS: Visual percepts were elicited reliably in 8 of 11 patients. On single-electrode activation, percepts were generally described as round spots of light of distinguishable localization in the visual field. On activation of a pattern of electrodes, percepts matched that pattern when electrodes were activated sequentially. Patterns such as horizontal or vertical bars were identified reliably; the most recent participant was able to recognize simplified letters presented on the 16-electrode array. The smallest distance between sites of concurrent retinal stimulation still yielding discernible spots of light was assessed to be 280 mum, corresponding to a logMAR of 1.78.
CONCLUSIONS: Subretinal electric stimulation can yield reliable, predictable percepts. Patterned perception is feasible, enabling blind persons to recognize shapes and discriminate different letters. Stimulation paradigms must be optimized, to further increase spatial resolution, demanding a better understanding of physical and biological effects of single versus repetitive stimulation (ClinicalTrials.gov number, NCT00515814).