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FACT; Annals Of Medicine; Pg. 50
THE BIONIC EYE;
Can scientists use electronic implants to help the blind see?
When Connie Schoeman was growing up, her family had a country house on a lake in New Hampshire, and she
loved to sit outside at night and gaze at the stars. As an undergraduate at Pembroke College in the
nineteen-forties, she studied medical
and when she moved to California in her twenties she
worked at a hospital laboratory. Connie became an expert at identifying parasites and other pathogens in
clinical specimens under the microscope. One afternoon, while she was driving, Connie was hit by a car that
was backing out of a driveway. "I realized that I didn't see it from the corner of my eye," she told me. An
ophthalmologist examined her. Although Connie's central vision was still sufficient for her to continue lab
work, her retina was pocked by heavy coal-black deposits. Tests revealed that even with glasses her vision
would be no better than 20/200, which meets the legal definition of blindness. She had experienced significant
loss of her peripheral field and some loss of her central field. The ophthalmologist diagnosed retinitis
pigmentosa, or R.P., an inherited disease in which the rods and cones of the retina degenerate. (The rods and
cones convert light into electrical impulses, which are carried by the optic nerve to the brain, where images are
formed.) Connie's eyes were otherwise healthy, but with the loss of the rods her peripheral vision and light
perception faded, and with the loss of the cones her central vision and color perception atrophied. "Soon I
couldn't see the stars," she said. "Then, after a few more years, I couldn't see the moon."
Retinitis pigmentosa occurs in approximately one in every four thousand people, and the disease usually
becomes symptomatic in early adulthood. The condition, which grows worse over time, is incurable. When
Connie heard her prognosis, she realized that her work with the microscope would be impossible. She
eventually went back to school, obtained a master's degree in vocational rehabilitation, and began working for
the state of California as a counsellor for the blind. As her own vision deteriorated further, she learned how
helpless blind people could feel. "I had to ask to be guided to the ladies' room in a restaurant," she told me.
"And if I dropped something, like my keys or cash, I had to search on my hands and knees for it."
Fifteen years ago, Connie lost her vision entirely. She is now seventy-six years old, a compact woman with a
lively smile and hair the color of champagne. When I met her, she was dressed in slacks and a beige blouse,
and her nails were painted fire-engine red. Last November, Connie volunteered to participate in a research