Brain Implant Developed at UCLA Helps Blind See Light Like Never Before

A new brain implant is being called a remarkable breakthrough in neurosurgery, helping people who are blind see light patterns they were never able to see before.

The world used to be completely dark for Jason Esterhuizen, after a horrific car crash seven years ago that cost him his eyes. Now, Esterhuizen can find bright squares on a computer screen and more, thanks to something new going on inside his head -- literally.

"All of the sudden, its 'Ah, I see it,'" he says. 

Esterhuizen is one of the first recipients of what the Food and Drug Administration calls a breakthrough device. An implant in his brain allows him to see patterns of light, which he can interpret as the world in front of him.

The brain implant was put there by UCLA neurosurgeon Nader Pouratian. Pouratian developed the device with Second Sight Medical Products. It starts with a tiny camera on Esterhuizen's glasses, which sends an image to a video processing unit. A wireless signal is then sent to the implant, which stimulates his visual cortex.

"We're not restoring vision in the way that you and I know vision, but it's artificial vision, and it's learning how to use that and how to interpret that," Pouratian says.

Sitting for an interview with NBCLA, Esterhuizen says, "I see something in front of us, so that might be the person with the camera."

Esterhizen showed NBCLA his new navigation skills. He still has to walk with a cane, but he can now sense objects around him. He was even able to navigate a crosswalk without help. Even more, Esterhuizen can now do things like sort laundry.

And, he says, it's changed his marriage. He now feels less dependent on his wife.

Last Fourth of July, the couple enjoyed the fireworks in a new way: "Where I'd normally be like 'It's loud now,' I can see that we can experience new things together, and its lovely it's great."

His wife married him after he had been blinded by the accident. Two people, now, who see with more than just their eyes.

The team at UCLA Health continues to work on improving the technology so that Esterhuizen and others like him will be able to, someday, see even more.

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