DOE Artificial Retina Project

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Funding for this work ended in FY 2011.

Vision Quest Pioneer: Artificial Retina Recipient Sees Brighter Future

Byland and Humayun

Terry Byland and Dr. Mark Humayun at a 2006 Council for Competitiveness event.

When Terry Byland began having trouble seeing in the dim light of dark restaurants and nightclubs, he wasn’t overly concerned. Soon after, however, the problem began to affect his night driving. A year later, he went to an ophthalmologist to have his eyes checked. He wasn’t prepared for the grave diagnosis: Retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

“What’s going to happen to me?” Byland asked his doctor, who told him that eventually he could go blind.

RP is a group of relatively rare inherited eye diseases that attack the photoreceptor cells in the retina, affecting about 1 in 4,000 people. Symptoms begin with night blindness, generally progressing to tunnel vision years or decades later and, finally, to complete blindness in some affected individuals. Millions more become blind each year from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which strikes the same photoreceptor cells but begins with loss of central vision. There is no cure for RP and, as yet, no treatment.

In Byland’s case, the full progression took just 7 years, leaving him blind when he was just 45. Forced to retire from a job he loved selling tools and parts and no longer able to play the sports he enjoyed, Byland struggled through bouts of depression, anger, and despair. “My family saw me at my worst and didn’t know from one day to the next what emotional state they’d find me in,” Byland says.

Little by little, he began to pick himself up, learning how to cope with the new life he’d unwillingly been handed. “Blindness robs you in so many ways, and either it deals with you or you deal with it,” he explains. He started visiting the Braille Institute, an advocacy organization for the blind, and soon realized he wasn’t alone. Since then, Byland has built up an extensive support network of other people with RP.


Terry Byland visits the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.

Second Chance
Nearly 11 years after blindness closed in, Byland learned about the Department of Energy’s Artificial Retina Project through a friend who’d had a cornea problem checked out at the nearby Doheny Eye Institute of the University of Southern California Medical Center. Passing a series of medical tests, Byland found he was a suitable implant candidate. A few weeks later, he was on the operating table—the last of six patients to receive the first experimental device.

The decision to go through the surgery wasn’t difficult, he says, even though doctors at Doheny and Second Sight Medical Products Inc., the implant manufacturer, weren’t sure what he might be able to see with the device. In the end, it came down to, “What have I got to lose? If there’s a chance I can help myself and others down the road, I’ve got to do this,” Byland explains.

The 16-channel implant that Byland received allows him to see images transmitted from a tiny camera mounted on a pair of dark glasses. Seeing only bits and pieces of light at first, Byland was guardedly optimistic that eventually he’d make some sense of it all.

“Let’s be honest, this isn’t a cure-all, but it could be; it just needs good people to get it started,” he says.


Terry Byland visits the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.

Path of Discovery
He never expected—nor did his doctors— that he’d come as far as he has. When a person has been blind for some time, a portion of the brain goes dormant and has to be retrained. During 3 years of extensive laboratory testing, the visual cortex of Byland’s brain has relearned how to translate what it’s seeing.

His doctors conducted scores of tests to see whether the electrodes were working right, adjusting to different levels of current. In the beginning, Byland had trouble distinguishing whether the bars he was seeing were horizontal or vertical and whether the light was in the upper left or lower right corner.

After  awhile, though, being able to identify the light source became second nature to him, and, every time he uses the device, his brain is storing information again.

He can’t make out shapes yet, but he can see the edges of light and dark objects. When he walks down a street, for example, the edge of a tree branch blocking his way will appear as a white line, alerting him that something’s in his way. “Before, I would’ve walked right into it,” Byland says. After dark, he can flip on a switch and see light emanating from a chandelier on the ceiling or make out changes in the light as action figures move across a television screen.

“It sounds pretty primitive to a sighted person,” Byland admits, “but for a blind person like me, it’s really amazing to see anything at all.” Especially exciting was being able to see his 18-year-old son’s shadow as he passed by on a sidewalk. “It was the first time I’d seen anything of him since he was 5 years old,” Byland explains.

The retinal implant has given him more confidence to go alone to unfamiliar places. He can see light coming in through windows and tell where a door is and whether it’s closed or open. He also enjoys impressing the ladies when he can. “They think it’s pretty cool when I can tell whether they’re wearing dark or light clothing or if there’s a pattern on their blouse,” which he determines from breaks in the light.

Future Promise
Byland is hopeful that he’ll get a more advanced artificial retina farther down the road. “It’s inspiring to know that one day blind people won’t be stuck with darkness,” Byland says. He’s also excited to have been part of developing the implants and of letting people know that hope is on the way. “It had to start somewhere, and we’re the roots of that,” he adds.

The Artificial Retina Project was part of the
Biological and Environmental Research Program
of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science
Funding for this work ended in FY 2011.

DOE Office of Science

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Last modified: Tuesday, May 15, 2018