Cheri Robertson is totally blind. She lost her eyes in a tragic accident when she was just nineteen years old and for the next two decades she lived in complete darkness. Cheri thought she would be blind for life, but in 2004 something extraordinary happened.
Cheri, the RoboChick, is a guinea pig in an extraordinary experiment that has transformed this ordinary mid-western girl into one of the world’s first cyborgs. Her brain has been implanted with a ground-breaking artificial vision system.
It is a procedure so radical that it’s still unapproved by the US Government but, despite this, Cheri was willing to go under the knife to prove that bionic vision can restore sight to the blind. Cheri is just one example of how the science-fiction dream of bionics is becoming reality.
In the UK, patients are being fitted with the first fully functional bionic hand. Eighteen year old Evan Reynolds lost his arm in a car accident last year, now he’s on the way to becoming a real-life bionic boy. Cheri and Evan are both at the forefront of bionics. They are human experiments that give us a glimpse of what the future of medicine has in store.
Cheri doesn’t call herself the bionic woman, she calls herself the Robochick. Cheri lives with her mother Suzi in St Louis, Missouri. Cheri has been blind since 1989 and Suzi takes care of her full-time but, she never dreamed that this would include learning to plug an artificial vision system into her daughter’s head.
Growing up through high school in the 80s, Cheri was a popular girl who had no trouble fitting in. She was a dancer and did acrobatics. In the autumn of 1989, Cheri had just started college and had her whole life ahead of her. The accident happened when Cheri and her boyfriend were driving to relatives for Thanksgiving. They had a head-on collision with a truck, the impact threw her forward and she smashed her head on the gearshift. Cheri’s injuries were so severe it was a miracle she made it to hospital alive.
Her neurosurgeon Dr Kenneth Smith explains “She received severe injuries to her upper face and the front part of her brain. Both eyeballs were so badly damaged that they had to be removed”. Against all the odds, the surgeons were able to save her life.
As nineteen year old Cheri recovered from the accident, her doctors were worried, not only about her physical injuries but , by the psychological trauma that came with losing her sight.
The artificial vision system was the brain-child of a pioneering scientist named William Dobelle. Dobelle was a maverick operating on the fringes of the medical establishment. His extraordinary idea was to create artificial vision by simply plugging a video camera directly into the brain of a blind person. To prove that bionic vision would work, Dobelle needed to experiment on human guinea pigs. But, getting government approval for such extreme surgery would take years. So, rather than wait, Dobelle advertised for volunteers and began his own trials in Portugal.
Cheri’s Aunt read about Dobelle’s vision implant in the newspaper. Dobelle needed volunteers who had been born with perfect vision, but later lost it. So, Cheri was ideal and she volunteered for surgery in 2003. The operation would be painful, expensive and there was no guarantee that it would work.
Cheri flew to Portugal in October of 2004. The day before the operation she got a shock when doctors explained exactly what it would involve. Basically, it was a simple craniotomy to open the skull and expose the occipital lobe where electrodes would be placed. When the skull was replaced it would have two holes drilled to take the electrode connectors.
Despite her reservations, the operation went ahead and took more than four hours. First the back of Cheri’s scalp was peeled away, then the surgeons cut a section out of her skull to expose her brain. Next, two plates, each containing hundreds of electrodes, were inserted in the folds of her brain right on the visual cortex. Two large holes were drilled through the back of Cheri’s shull to allow the terminals to be implanted. Another metal plate was fitted to the top of her head to ground the electricity running through the system. Finally, her head was stitched back together.
There was a problem, one of the terminals continues to leak brain fluid and more operations were needed to fix it. The skull is trying to heal around a foreign body which it naturally rejects and Cheri’s head took several months to heal.
Cheri thought the scientists would hook up the cables to her head, flip a switch and boom, she would see. In fact, the scientists didn’t know if the implant would work at all. They had to test each of the electrodes individually to find out which ones were live.
A camera, fitted to Cheri’s glasses, acts as an artificial eye. It sends a signal to a computer around Cheri’s waist. This computer translates the signal into impulses which are sent through cables to the electrodes in her brain.
Finally, during the testing, Cherie saw a flash of light “It was kind of like I was in a dark room and someone shone a flashlight in my face”. After several weeks of tests, Cheri was ready to bring the system home. Cheri is currently using only ten of a possible 484 electrodes on her visual cortex. She is able to see contrasts but, is not using her bionic vision to anything like its full potential.
The promise of a bright new technological future was about to turn sour. Bill Dobelle died suddenly in 2006 at the age of 59. Unfortunately, with him died Cheri’s hopes. With the head researcher gone funding for the Dobelle Institute was withdrawn. Cheri may never receive the system upgrade that she had been promised to extend the visual system’s capabilities. To compound the problem, the system she currently has, has failed.
Jens Naumann was one of the first artificial vision patients and his system did, after many teething problems, work fully. Cheri hopes he can explain what she might expect. What she doesn’t know, is that his system has completely broken down and he is thinking of having the implants removed. While Jens has given up on his artificial vision system, he still thinks Cheri’s has enormous potential and that through her the dream of true bionic vision may, one day, be realised.
CREDITS: All of the above information came from the UK television’s Channel 5 Extraordinary People series.
The Bionic Human: Implanted Prosthetic Devices – Frank E. Johnson
Bionics (Science on the Edge) – Maxine Rosaler
Bionics (Cool Science) – Judtih Jango-Cohen