The series exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues this week with the story of a woman who calls herself ‘robochick’. After losing her eyes in car crash, Cheri Robertson was fitted with a bionic vision system and now has almost 500 electrodes implanted in her brain to help her see. The film also follows the experiences of a man who is in possession of the world’s most advanced bionic hand.

In 1989, Cheri Robertson was involved in a serious car accident which left her in a critical condition. Her head injuries were so severe that her eyes had to be surgically removed. After 15 years without her vision, Cheri learned of a revolutionary treatment that gave her new hope that she would see again.

Since the 1960s, New York scientist Dr William Dobelle had been developing an artificial-vision system. By implanting a chip into the patient’s brain, Dr Dobelle was able to channel electrical impulses through a pair of special eyeglasses. The impulses would in turn stimulate the brain’s visual cortex via a camera mounted on the glasses.

The controversial procedure was rejected by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so Dr Dobelle ventured abroad to implement clinical trials. In 2004, Cheri travelled to Portugal after having paid $90,000 for the operation.

The surgery itself was incredibly invasive and risky – hundreds of electrodes were fitted onto Cheri’s brain and holes were drilled into her skull in order to position special hardware.

Because of the dramatic nature of the operation, it took Cheri a year to recover. After this period of recuperation, the camera was finally plugged into the hardware in Cheri’s skull. Once the vision system was activated, she was able to see dots of light, which would suggest that the operation produced some degree of success.

Since 2004, Cheri’s level of vision remains stable. However, the first patient to undergo the surgery, Jens Naumann, who also appears in the film, says that he is considering having the system removed because it is no longer functioning. Indeed, Cheri faces an uncertain future. The surgery has still not been been approved by the FDA, and further trials have not been granted funding. This casts doubt over whether Cheri will get the follow-up treatment and system upgrade she requires.

It is a decidedly more positive story for Surrey teenager Evan Reynolds. He has access to some of the most advanced bionic technology in the world to assist with his disability. Evan lost his left hand and part of his arm when he leaned out of a moving car. His arm was caught on a post and degloved – the skin was peeled back from the limb. Fortunately for Evan, he has been able to test-drive the iLimb, a bionic hand developed by Touch Bionics in Scotland. The first of its kind, the revolutionary device fits onto what is left of the existing arm and works in the same way a real hand does – via messages sent by Evan’s brain to his phantom limb.

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  • unifiedreality

    This is really exciting. The race is on to see if bionics will beat genetics in helping people to get their lost sense/limbs back.

  • Peter Dickinson

    After watching this program I had the impression that Cheri Robertson was having problems with the electronic device that connects to her implant and had to travel to the US to get it looked at. I imagine that this device is fundamentally a fairly normal piece of electronic technology albeit used for an extraordinary application. As an engineer myself I’m surprised that she had to go to such lengths to get it maintained. Could no’one nearer to her home help her with it?

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