Playing Tetris To Treat Lazy Eye
April 23, 2013

Can Tetris Cure Lazy Eye?

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Tetris is more than a fun and exciting way to practice your skills at packing a moving truck. According to new study, the iconic Russian tile-matching game created by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 can also be used to correct amblyopia, or lazy eye. This condition is caused when the brain sends imbalanced processing signals and favors one eye over the other.

New research from the McGill University in Montreal has looked into the effects of falling bricks on amblyopia, and experts now say playing that the game could train the eyes to work together to complete a task. This in turn helps to correct the brain´s processing error and can negate the effects of amblyopia. This new study will be published in the upcoming edition of the science journal Current Biology.

"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," said Dr. Robert Hess, senior author of the paper.

"The game itself is sort of incidental in a way. It just provides us with a platform to administer this training that we need to do in a way that's enjoyable,” he continued. "The game itself is not so important as the principle behind how we manipulate the game to do some good."

Dr. Hess may not believe the game itself is responsible for improving patients´ conditions, but the results speak for themselves. The study found that those amblyopic patients who played Tetris say their conditions improved four-fold over patients who were simply given a patch to wear over their strong eye.

To test the game´s effects on lazy eye, Dr. Hess gathered 18 patients and split them into two groups. One group was asked to wear a patch over their good eye while they played their game using only their bad eye. The second group of participants played Tetris for an hour a day for six weeks using both eyes. The researchers adjusted the resolution of the game for the un-patched participants, boosting the contrast on the falling shapes and decreasing it for the background. By doing this the researchers hoped the stronger eye would be better equipped to focus on the falling shapes rather than getting lost in the mix.

"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," said Dr. Hess.

"And it turns out the more they do that, the more the two eyes work together for the first time ever for them, the stronger it becomes and the more we can increase the contrast in the good eye, higher and higher, and bring it all the way up so the contrast is the same.”

Amblyopia is the most common visual impairment in children and can affect up to three percent of the population. The weaker or “lazy” eye is less able to see details in sharp focus and can dip or wander independently of the stronger eye. In some cases, the weak eye can have a congenital cataract which clouds the lens.

With the exception of congenital cataracts, Dr. Hess claims a weak eye is a normal eye, and the optic nerve to which it is attached is also normal. He says it´s the “software” in the brain which has gone wrong. Luckily, however, the brain has enough plasticity to be trained to overcome this flaw and balance out the signals it sends through the optic nerve.

Doctors currently treat this condition by patching the strong eye in hopes that the weak eye will learn to catch up. Dr. Hess says this treatment is “universally hated” because kids don´t want to depend on their weak eye and run the risk of being teased for wearing a patch. Though the patch has been shown to improve vision slightly, Dr. Hess believes sitting kids down in front of a game of Tetris for several hours a week will be greatly preferred and even yield better results.