It was 3 a.m. in Los Angeles, California. Richard McDonald was drifting between sleep and wakefulness when he heard these words on his radio: “If you once had vision but are now blind and would like to participate in the first clinical trial for a brain implant…”
At first, he thought he was dreaming. Then, he decided he had to act.
Now, Richard is one of just six people living with artificial vision as part of a revolutionary FDA clinical trial for an innovative medical technology to treat blindness.
RICHARD'S JOURNEY WITH BLINDNESS
Richard was diagnosed with glaucoma the day he was born. Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions that damage the nerve that connects the eye to the brain.
“When I was born, you could look into my eyes and tell that there was something wrong,” Richard said.
Doctors would confirm that Richard was essentially blind in his right eye and had limited functional vision in his left eye. As Richard puts it, “The best eyesight I’ve ever had was ‘legally blind.’”
Despite the discouraging diagnosis, Richard’s parents focused their energy on getting Richard the best care available. They were determined to salvage whatever vision Richard still had and maintain it for as long as possible. So, Richard and his family moved to Los Angeles under the care of a team of highly-qualified eye specialists.
“I had my first operation when I was only 2 months old,” Richard said. “Now, cumulatively, I’ve had about 50 surgeries on my eyes – lasers, corneal transplants, cryogenic freezing treatments, valve implants, lens replacements, you name it.”
Thanks to these therapies, Richard was able to enjoy 40 years of functional vision.
“Most people in my shoes are totally blind by age twelve,” Richard said. “The only reason I had some functional vision for so long is because my parents. They gave me access to the very best care. I was prepared to fight it all the way down the line. But at some point, as it is often with any medical condition, all the medicines and surgeries stopped working.”
Unfortunately, after a progressive decline, Richard became totally blind in 2006.
KEEPING HIS EYE ON THE PRIZE
Richard did not let limited vision or blindness steal his passions or his productivity. He attended California State University, Northridge, and graduated with an accounting degree. He went to work for several international public accounting firms and then served as the CFO for an international medical manufacturing company.
“I did and participated in most normal things throughout my life,” said Richard “I did many of them poorly with my lousy vision – especially baseball – but I tried!”
Richard used special reading glasses, screen magnifier devices, screen readers and other adaptive technologies to continue to do the things he loved. But for Richard, one of his favorite hobbies is all about the ears.
“I’m really into ham radio – also known as amateur radio – where I can talk to people either down the street or on the other side of the planet,” said Richard. “I have massive antennas in my backyard. I troll different frequencies, and I make contact with people from Australia to South Africa and all points in between. There’s something cool about talking on the radio and knowing that it might touch someone else’s antenna anywhere in the world.”
For those unfamiliar with ham radio, Richard offers a simple explanation: “Think Twitter over the air.”
Richard’s ham radio community has helped him navigate the adjustment from functional vision to total blindness.
“It was a big transition in my life,” Richard said. “Emotionally, physically and mentally. It was necessary to learn some new skillsets that I had familiarity with, but then actually doing them proved quite different. It was tough, but now I’m through it.”
Richard’s radio played another important role in his transition from functional vision to total blindness: It helped stop and reverse the transition in its tracks.
THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM REALIZED
Richard listens to Coast to Coast AM almost every night.
“It’s a really popular show, and it’s on every night from 10 to 2 in the morning,” said Richard. “They usually explore far-out topics – UFOs, bigfoot, ghosts, the paranormal – so I like to listen to it when I go to sleep as a kind of bed-time story.”
So when Richard heard an advertisement for a brain implant that would aim to restore vision to the blind, he thought it must have been part of the usual supernatural-themed programming.
“I was just lying there in bed, half dozing in and out, and all of a sudden I hear this advertisement about a clinical trial for a brain implant for bionic vision,” Richard recalls. “I was confused. I thought, ‘Is this part of this far-out radio program or is this really a commercial ad? Is this the impossible dream?’”
Richard stayed awake to hear the advertisement run again – it was indeed real. The next morning, he found information about the clinical trial online, and he scrambled to apply. He knew he was the right person for the job.
“I thought about what would be involved in the very first trial for bionic vision, and I thought I had the right stuff to help bring it to fruition,” said Richard. “I’ve always wanted to be an explorer – like Lewis and Clark or the first astronauts – and this way, I could be an explorer on the frontier of science and technology. What an opportunity.”
Soon after, Richard was chosen as one of six people to participate in the trial, and he began working with researchers and health care providers to prepare for surgery.
“I was stunned and amazed that I got in the trial,” said Richard. “My immediate thought was: Wow, I’m going to get a brain implant. It’s one thing to need surgery – I’d had dozens of surgeries before – but it’s a whole different thing to get an experimental implant and be one of the first patients ever.”
Richard’s doctors implanted a tiny device on his brain that receives electrical pulses representing images captured by a miniature camera mounted on a pair of glasses. The result is the perception of patterns of light – sight.
Richard explains the technology like this: “We’re trying to translate the video stream from the camera on my glasses into language that the brain understands, and then transmit it wirelessly. We’re working in the mind’s eye, establishing a connection between the brain and the outside world without the traditional pipeline – without the eyeball and the optic nerves – to get there.”
One month after his surgery, Richard was ready to test the connection himself.
“It was very exciting when they turned it on for the first time, and I got to begin the process of learning to see with synthetic vision,” said Richard. “I like to describe what I saw – and what I continue to see – as being like a 1960s era air traffic controller’s radar. I see blips of light, white blobs on a dark background.”
To someone with perfect vision, Richard’s description of his newfound sight might seem strange. But to Richard, its impact is immeasurable.
“It’s been incredible, absolutely life-changing,” said Richard. “Ever since I lost my eyesight, for 13 years, I would never walk around my block by myself. It was too scary, too dangerous. But with [the technology], I can see enough of the sidewalk now. I have the confidence, I have the edge, so I’ve started walking all by myself. That’s big.”
Not to mention, Richard’s artificial vision is improving every day.
“The human brain adapts, and mine is adapting to its new reality,” he said. “I’m often surprised when I notice I can see something new. I’m getting better and better. Just recently during a trip to the beach, I could see the water.”
Adapting alongside Richard’s brain is the technology itself. Medtech innovators are constantly updating the software as they learn more about what trial patients like Richard are seeing.
“In the laboratory, we look at a touch screen and practice with [the technology],” said Richard. “The technicians ask what you see, where it is, what it looks like, and they use that information to tweak the app in the glasses. They’re cracking the code.”
RICHARD'S ULTIMATE WISH
Richard is confident that his participation in the clinical trial is just the first step toward perfect artificial vision for patients in need.
“Just look at how far we’ve come with technology,” said Richard. “Compare the iPhone 1 to the iPhone 10. We’re only on the 1 with this technology. Imagine where we’ll be with the 10.”
Richard’s hopes for progress became even more tangible on his birthday this year when he went to blow out his birthday candle, something he hadn’t done for 13 years.
“When I lost my eyesight, I’d go to birthday parties, and they’d be anticlimactic,” he said. “I haven’t been able to see my candle and blow it out in 13 years. But this past February, my wife and I went to a restaurant for my birthday dinner. I was wearing [the technology] when the waitresses came over with a scoop of ice-cream with a candle on top. They put it in front of me, and when I scanned the table, I could detect the presence of the candle. I actually reached out for the candle – which made everyone scream – because I couldn’t believe I could see it. I pulled my arm back, scanned again, found the candle, and blew it out. I smelt the smell that the candle’s smoke made, and I watched the image go ‘poof.’ My wife and I cried. Now, I get to do what you do every year, what everyone does every year. I get to blow out my birthday candle and make a wish.”
Richard’s wish for his birthday this year – and his wish for all his birthdays to come – is for a future without blindness.
“I’ve published a book, I’ve started a website, because the good news needs to be shouted from the mountain tops – the impossible dream is real and it’s here and it’s now,” said Richard. “One day, we’ll have perfect bionic eyes. But we need everybody’s help. I want to spread the word. I want to rally support. I want my birthday wish to come true.”
Learn more about advancements in medical technology serving people with limited vision and blindness here.