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Lazy eye? Playing video games might help

A new study finds that participants with amblyopia showed significant improvements in visual acuity and 3D depth perception after clocking in a total of 40 hours playing video games.

Those with a condition commonly referred to as lazy eye may soon be assigned video game therapy, thanks to results of a new study published in the August issue of the journal PLoS Biology.

Participants in the UC Berkeley study who spent at least 40 hours playing off-the-shelf video games throughout the course of the study enjoyed better visual acuity and 3D depth perception scores than prior to playing the games. (Don't get too excited; these improvements have not been seen in people with normal vision.)

UC Berkeley

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

Amblyopia is a brain disorder that results in one eye not developing properly. In children, occlusion therapy (putting a patch over the better eye to force the brain to rely on the weaker one) can treat the disorder, but in adults the therapy appears largely ineffective. That's unfortunate, given that amblyopia is the most common cause of one-eye visual impairment in young and middle-aged adults.

"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," said principal investigator Dennis Levi, the school's dean of optometry. "These findings are very encouraging."

Meanwhile, the American Optometric Association is also looking into whether the Nintendo 3DS handheld gaming system might identify amblyopia and other vision disorders.

For the UC Berkeley pilot study, which included 20 participants with amblyopia ages 15 to 61, the researchers selected a first-person shooter video game (Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault) and a non-action game involving constructing things (SimCity Societies).

In one experiment, they had 10 participants play the shooter game for a total of 40 hours (2 hours at a time over the course of a month). In another, three participants not in that first group played the construction game for the same amount of time with patches over their good eyes.

In both experiments, visual acuity improved 30 percent (an improvement of 1.5 lines on the standard letter chart used by optometrists), a marked improvement over the 1-line gain seen in 120 hours of occlusion therapy in children.

Because they continued to see improvements in participants beyond 40 hours of gaming, the researchers say it is not yet clear when those improvements plateau. Not a bad issue to have. In fact, this pilot study is so encouraging that Levi has already received a $1.7 million three-year grant to compare video game therapy with patches in both children and adults.

For this study, the researchers will use customized video games void of any violence. "We didn't think it was a good idea to have a 5-year-old blowing things up," Levi noted.

Regardless, it's hard to imagine a world where--at least as far as compliance is concerned--kids are going to prefer wearing patches to playing video games.