Multiple Studies Showing Video Games May Improve Vision in Amblyopia

5:56 PM

For all of those times I hear mothers lament how video games are likely destroying their children's vision, new studies are finding that video games may actually improve visual acuity! These studies were specifically geared toward individuals with amblyopia, a condition where one eye has reduced vision despite the best possible pair of glasses.  Amblyopia (or a lazy eye as it is sometimes called) is the result of a high prescription that has been left uncorrected, or an eye turn causing a poor visual signal to reach the brain.  As a child is growing, a poor or blurry visual signal will cause the eye-brain connection to fail to develop properly, resulting in permanent visual decrease.  In the past it has been commonly accepted that ambylopes have no chance of regaining sharp vision to their "lazy" eye past the age of 8 (because by then the eye to brain connections have fully developed).  Children were typically treated by patching their good eye to force them to use their lazy eye in an attempt to develop these visual connections.  Newer studies, however, have shown that visual improvement may be possible past this critical period of 8 years of age!

Most children are happy playing video games, despite the face this one is making!

The other difficult part of treating amblyopia is that children (no surprise) don't exactly like having their good eye patched.  And you can't just put the patch on and let them go take a nap, or eat ice cream or something.  They traditionally had to perform at least 2 hours of near activities like reading or word searches or puzzles, etc.  These activities have high visual demand, and can be quite frustrating when you are looking through a blurry eye.  Two new studies are showing that playing video games for one to two hours with the good eye patched (an activity that won't exactly be hard to entice children or adults for that matter to perform) can also be effective, however!  One study showed a 30% improvement in visual acuity in patients with amblyopia between the ages of 15 to 61 (well past the critical 8 years of age that was traditionally set as the limit).  This improvement in vision was after just 40 hours of video game play.  It took 120 hours of traditional "near" activities to get the same 30% improvement in the control group.  A second study of 10-18 year olds showed similar notable improvement in vision versus a control group when video game therapy was employed for 1 hour a day.

What do these studies mean?  One, getting someone to participate in vision therapy activities is very taxing (and usually not that fun) when it involves forcing them to use an eye they can barely see out of.  When you temper that with an activity that is inherently enjoyable and doesn't seem like work, the compliance with treatment is going to be much better.  Do I believe that video games make the brain more plastic than traditional reading activities? Probably not.  But I'm quite sure that more therapy is getting done when the patient finds it enjoyable.

Traditional patching with near work.  He sure looks like he is having fun.  Photo courtesy National Eye Institute
Take home points: video games are not going to destroy your children's vision, but I would recommend they take breaks to play outside.  Video games can actually be useful as vision therapy because they have the advantage of improving hand-eye coordination and developing important visual skills like figure ground differentiation.  Will you create superhuman vision or stop needing glasses if you play enough video games?  Of course not.  But the good news is that people who are suffering from vision loss due to an amblyopic eye can see improvement through doing an activity that they enjoy!

Amblyopia is another reason why it is so important to have your child's vision checked, even if they are not complaining about blur.  If one eye is seeing clearly, no one will know the other eye is not working unless they develop a tell-tale eye turn (or strabismus).  Children as young as 6 months of age can be screened for signs of amblyopia, so please bring them to an eye doctor to make sure they have all the visual skills they need to learn to read and succeed at school!

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