by Justine Alford
Earlier this year, a team of neuroscientists based at the University of California, Riverside, published a study in the journal Current Biology in which they tested out their new app called UltimEyes. Rather than improving the eye itself, the app works by exploiting a fundamental characteristic of the brain—neuroplasticity. Connections between brain cells are malleable and can be strengthened, so by exercising the area of the brain that is responsible for processing visual information (the visual cortex), it is possible to improve visual performance. This plasticity has been demonstrated in various prior studies on adults, which usually involve repetitive practice on visual tasks.
The visual stimuli used by UltimEyes and various other eye-training apps are patterns called Gabor patches, which are blurred lines presented on a grey background. Gabor patches are used because they have features that match and therefore activate the receptive field properties of brain cells located in the visual cortex. By presenting the eyes with these patterns and gradually making them more difficult to identify, your brain gets better at processing them, which leads to an improvement in vision.
As reported in the study, the team tested out their training platform on 19 baseball players and found that it improved the distance at which they could see clearly by an average of 31%. Many of them even achieved greater than 20/20 vision after using the app 30 times. Furthermore, the participants also had decreased strike-outs, suggesting it could actually help in playing baseball.
Another app, called GlassesOff, also uses Gabor patches to improve vision, but this promises to help users decrease their need for reading glasses. As described in Scientific Reports, a 30-person study found that presbyopic (age-related long-sightedness) participants were able to read letters 1.6 times smaller after repeatedly using the app. Furthermore, the scientists report that users’ eye health also improved by an average of 8.6 years.
These apps can’t cure eye conditions such as presbyopia, but they can improve the ability of your brain to interpret information. While it’s well recognized that Gabor patches can activate and boost efficiency of the visual cortex, at the moment it’s unclear what precisely is going on in the brain that leads to the observed improvements in vision. Moreover, researchers don’t know how long-lasting the effects are. Still, the results are encouraging, and some lines of evidence even suggest that these apps could potentially delay the need for reading glasses.