April 12, 2017

Losing your vision? There's an app for that

Daily Briefing

    Many people consider age-related eye deterioration—known as presbyopia—to be a fact of life. But research suggests that certain brain training games might help keep it at bay, Austin Frakt writes for the New York Times' "The Upshot."

    Presbyopia is very common, Frakt writes. On average, an adult over 30 loses the ability to see another line on an eye reading chart every five years—and by age 45 about 83 percent of adults in North America have the condition. By 50, "it's nearly universal," Frakt writes.

    And presbyopia isn't harmless. For instance, it can contribute to dangerous falls and auto accidents. Even bifocals—which help people read—can be hazardous because they "impair contrast sensitivity," Frakt writes. But a new method of brain training for improving eyesight has attracted a decent amount of media attention in recent years. Frakt notes that there are several apps that claim to use the method, and he personally tested one that is backed up by scientific data.

    The science

    "It's based on perceptual learning, the improvement of visual performance as a result of demanding training on specific images," Frakt explains. And while some experts are skeptical of brain training in general—and this method in particular—a number of studies suggest this specific method may actually improve reading speed, visual acuity, and contrast sensitivity.

    The training involves looking at so-called "Gabor patches"—low contrast images that "optimally stimulate the part of the brain responsible for vision," Frakt writes. In this method, the Gabor patches are flashed on a screen for fractions of a section, typically while "placed between closely spaced, distracting flankers," according to Frakt. If you view such an image "hundreds of times" per week for several months, studies suggest your vision will improve, Frakt writes.

    Notably, at least one study suggests this type of brain training does not alter the structure of the eye—but rather the brain itself. The theory, Frakt explains, is that training with Gabor patches helps the brain process and assemble "raw" visual data from the eye. "The brain must coordinate activity across sets of neurons to assemble [visual data] into recognizable objects like chairs, faces, letters, or words," he writes. But the brain can only do this so quickly, and as the eye moves, the brain may not have had enough time to process what it just saw—effectively creating a "bottleneck in the brain" as it tries to build and understand an image.

    As a result, "enhancing and speeding up the ability to process image components—through perceptual learning—improves a wide range of vision functions," enabling the brain to process images faster and compensating for structural defects in the eye, Frakt writes. And several studies suggest such training works both for the old and the young. 

    Some of those studies, Frakt notes, were run by researchers with financial ties to vision-training apps—but others were not. "And several scientists I spoke to, including those without ties to [the app Frakt used to practice], thought the science behind the app was credible," Frakt writes.

    Frakt's experience with a vision-training app was positive. While the exercise could be monotonous, the app reports showed he was improving within just a few months. "I can read fonts nearly one-third the size I could when I started and much more rapidly," Frakt writes. And "according to feedback from [the app], my vision after training is equivalent to a man about 10 years younger than my age" (Frakt, "The Upshot," New York Times, 3/27).

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