Monday, October 24, 2011

Action-packed video games help solve lazy eye


It sounds like a teenager's dream: playing shoot-'em-up video games, on doctor's orders.

At the American Academy of Opthalmology's annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, a team led by Somen Ghosh of the Micro Surgical Eye Clinic in Kolkata, India, reported that video game therapy improved the visual acuity of 10- to 18-year-olds with amblyopia, or "lazy eye".

This comes hot on the heels of similar findings from a study of adults with the condition, published in PLoS Biology by a team led by Roger Li and Dennis Levi of the University of California, Berkeley. Even more impressive results may be on the horizon, as video games are combined with another approach, known as "perceptual learning".

Amblyopia occurs when the neural connections from one eye to the brain fail to develop normally. Over time, the brain reacts by ignoring the blurry input from this "weaker" eye.

The condition can be treated in childhood by patching the good eye and using visual training exercises to build the faulty neural connections - but the dogma has until recently been that little can be done after about the age of 9.

The idea of using video games stemmed from the discovery that expert gamers have unusually strong visual skills. Subsequent studies have shown that action games can improve contrast sensitivity in people with normal vision.

Ghosh's studies involved children and teenagers with amblyopia who received the standard treatment of patch, eyeglasses and visual exercises, with or without supplementary treatments. Even the group given just the basic treatment showed some improvement after one year - but those who were also instructed to play first-person shooter or driving games each day did noticeably better.

In adults, some of the best results in treating amblyopia have not used computer games, but instead trained people to distinguish blurry grey patterns known as Gabor patches. In 2004, a team led by Uri Polat of Tel Aviv University in Israel showed that this perceptual learning resulted in two-fold improvements to sufferers' contrast sensitivity.

But even Polat, who has recently applied a similar approach to treating the natural deterioration in close vision that happens with age, concedes that the exercises are a bit boring for teens.

So what about combining perceptual learning with gaming? That's now being tried by Levi's lab, in collaboration with a team led by Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester in New York.

The researchers have embedded Gabor patches into a modified version of the first-person shooter Unreal Tournament, which they are now testing as a treatment for amblyopia.

"You have to shoot at the patches," Bavelier explains. "If you don't they transform into nasty bots that are really difficult to kill.

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