Mobile game may have lasting benefit for 'lazy' eye

Children who had their “lazy” eye treated with an experimental mobile game continued to benefit for an entire year, according to a new study.

“Lazy” eye, known medically as amblyopia, occurs when the eye cannot clearly focus. Sometimes it’s caused by a person’s eyes being misaligned.

The usual treatment is to wear a patch over the "strong" eye, "to force the use of the amblyopic or weak eye,” said Eileen Birch, the study’s senior author. Patching the strong eye forces the brain to rely on the weak eye.

“That does work, but there’s been some research lately (suggesting) that’s not really the right approach,” said Birch, who is senior scientist at the Retina Foundation of the Southwest in Dallas. She said the condition often recurs after patching.

Additionally, Birch said, the treatment for amblyopia should also teach both eyes to work together.

For the new study, the researchers continued to follow children who were treated for amblyopia in an earlier study using an experimental game on an iPad. The game required the children to stack falling blocks while wearing glasses with lenses that are different colors.

By playing with the color and contrast settings for the game, researchers were able to require each eye to work toward stacking the blocks. Additionally, they were able to require the children’s eyes to work together.

After a few weeks, the researchers found children who used the game had improved visual acuity, which is how much detail they’re able to see. Another research team also found improvements in visual acuity among adults.

During the first study, the researchers found that the children’s improved vision remained stable for three months after they finished treatment. The new study, reported in JAMA Ophthalmology, found the improvement lasted for an entire year.

In the new study, the researchers found the improvement in vision among kids who used the game did not differ between children who used an eye patch in an attempt to make the benefits last and those who didn't.

“The kids who had no patching afterwards did just as well as the kids who tried the maintenance patching,” Birch said.

While the app is not available to the average person, she said there is a new trial underway to test the game's effectiveness in a much larger group of children.

“There is a lot of interest in it," Birch said. “We’ll find out in a clinical setting whether it’s helpful for children to have this.”