A variation of the popular video game Tetris has been found to be effective at treating adult amblyopia, also known as ‘lazy eye’, according to new research conducted by scientists at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC).

As one of the most common causes of visual impairment, amblyopia affects nearly 3 percent of the population. It occurs as a result of improper brain processing, causing the weaker eye to be suppressed by the stronger eye. A person with lazy eye will not be able to focus properly with one of their eyes – the eye with impaired vision (amblyopia) will not receive clear images.

Treatment options for this condition include patching the stronger eye to make the weaker one work more. However, this form of treatment has only been successful in children.

Playing the adapted version of the puzzle game requires information to be sent to both eyes, making them work cooperatively.

By making both eyes cooperate, the amblyopic brain is able to relearn as a result of an increase in the level of plasticity in the brain.

The senior author of the study, Dr. Robert Hess, Director of Research Department of Ophthalmology at the RI-MUHC and at McGill University, said:

“The key to improving vision for adults, who currently have no other treatment options, was to set up conditions that would enable the two eyes to cooperate for the first time in a given task.”

Dr. Hess explained that the brain has quite a high level of plasticity, which means that it is possible to treat vision loss which occurred during early visual development. In fact, previous research has found that such plasticity can be released temporarily with just 15 minutes of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). The 15 minutes of rTMS therapy improved contrast sensitivity in patients’ amblyopic eyes for a period of at least 30 minutes.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, assessed the effectiveness of treating amblyopic adults with the game Tetris.

Dr. Hess, who also serves as director of McGill Vision Research, added:

“Using head-mounted video goggles we were able to display the game dichoptically, where one eye was allowed to see only the falling objects, and the other eye was allowed to see only the ground plane objects. Forcing the eyes to work together, we believed, would improve vision in the lazy eye.”

They evaluated the efficacy of this novel form of treatment in a total of 18 adults who suffered from amblyopia. Half of the patients played the game with their stronger eye patched, while the other half played the game dichoptically – each eye was able to see a separate part of the game.

The patients who played the game with both eyes experienced significant improvement in their vision of the weaker eye after only two weeks. The monocular patching group also saw moderate improvements, however, this improvement increased substantially when they started dichoptic training.

A previous study conducted at an eye clinic in India, similarly revealed that treatment of amblyopia can be achieved if patients stick to a regimen that includes playing video games along with standard amblyopia treatment.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist