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FWD News: Lazy Eye can Improve With Gaming

Image of an Eye ExamOptometry research has been looking at new ways to treat the highly common disorder of lazy eye. While eye patches were long believed to be the only, if imperfect, solution to this problem, new studies have reinforced the notion that having patients play video games could result even greater outcomes.

Amblyopia, also known as lazy eye, is a neurological disorder where the vision in one eye does not develop properly. It is a major cause of permanent visual impairment in childhood and affects nearly three percent of children, according to the National Eye Institute. It is also the most common cause of one-eye visual impairment among young and middle-aged adults. Read More...

Recent research has shown that video games could also help adults affected by the condition. In a study from the School of Optometry and the Helen Willis Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkley, researchers found that playing commercial video games had a noticeable impact on participants. Subjects in the lazy eye treatment pilot project experienced significant improvements in visual acuity and 3D depth perception after just 40 hours of gaming.

"This study is the first to show that video game play is useful for improving blurred vision in adults with amblyopia," said the study's lead author, Dr. Roger Li, research optometrist at the University. "I was very surprised by this finding; I didn't expect to see this type of improvement."

"These new findings are very encouraging because there are currently no accepted treatments for adults with amblyopia," adds lead researcher Dr. Dennis Levi, dean of optometry at the Univeristy. "A lot of eye doctors start closing the books on successful treatment after age 8 or so because of the widespread belief that amblyopia can only be reversed during a critical window of development in the visual cortex. If the disorder is not corrected in childhood, the damage was thought to be irreversible."

Through their research on perceptual learning, the experts have found that intensive training on a perceptual task, such as getting two horizontal lines aligned, could lead to a 30-40 percent improvement in visual acuity in adults living with the condition.

"We had people spending 50 hours practicing an admittedly boring task, so it took a lot for the subjects to stay engaged," said Levi. "It also turns out that the improvements in perceptual learning are often task-specific, so subjects who learned to align horizontal lines could not immediately align the lines when they were flipped vertically."

The researchers then turned their attention to action and non-action video games, studying a group of individuals ages 15-61. Both those who played action video games for 40 hours, in two hour sessions, for a month, and those who played non-action games while wearing an eye patch for the same amount of time had 30 percent improvement in visual acuity. By comparison, it can take 120 hours to see a similar improvement while wearing an eye patch alone, demonstrating the strength of the new interactive method.

"Playing a video game is a lot more fun than just wearing a patch, so the hope is that compliance is likely to be higher among kids," said Levi. "Wearing a patch can be socially awkward for some kids, so our hope is to see faster improvement by having them do an intensive task like playing a video game."

While the results are encouraging, the experts warn that more research is yet to be done on the matter, and that individuals should consult their doctors before starting any video game therapy.

Another study, looking more closely at treating amblyopia in older children, also found that a regimen of video games could significantly improve vision. Presenting at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology in October, Dr. Somen Ghosh revealed that participants who played games daily, using only their weaker eye, had some of the strongest results.

While outcomes were still best in children under the age of 14, many participants over that age also experienced success. Such was the case of Saurav Sen, a 16 year old particpant whose doctors had all but given up on treating his vision problems, which were significantly impacting his academic life.

"Playing the shooting games while using just my weaker eye was hard at first, but after a few months I could win all game levels easily," said Sen. "I'm very happy that I stuck with the program. My vision has improved a lot, so that I now have no trouble studying or taking exams. My tennis game also improved, and of course I'm now a pro PC gamer."