A system that trains your brain to overcome degrading vision as you age will soon be available as an iPhone app
WE HAVE gotten used to the idea that smartphone apps can substitute for devices like GPS navigation systems or portable music players. But the latest item on the list may come as a surprise: reading glasses.
Early next year, a company called Ucansi will launch GlassesOff, an iPhone app that could help older people shed their reading glasses for at least part of the time – and may allow others to carry on reading without optical aids for years longer than would otherwise be possible.
The app helps people compensate for deterioration in their eyes’ ability to focus on nearby objects by training the brain to process the resulting blurred images. “We’re using the brain as glasses,” says Uri Polat of Tel Aviv University in Israel, and co-founder of Ucansi.
As we get older, the lenses in our eyes become less elastic, and so can’t readily be adjusted to focus on nearby objects. Known as presbyopia, the condition is almost ubiquitous among people in their early fifties and older. In addition to the obvious reading problems, symptoms include tired eyes and headaches.
Polat’s software trains users to detect patterns called Gabor patches – blurry lines created by varying a grey background. In a typical training session, the user fixates on a white circle, which then gives way to a rapid succession of images. Some are blank, but others show Gabor patches at different places on the screen, one of which will appear where the circle was (see diagram).
Users must determine when in the sequence the pattern appeared at the target position. As they become better at the task, the software adapts to alter the orientation of the patterns, place them closer to the target, or speed up the sequence.
At last week’s meeting of the Entertainment Software and Cognitive Neurotherapeutics Society in San Francisco, Polat’s team described tests of the software that Dennis Levi ran in his lab at the University of California, Berkeley. After 40 training sessions, volunteers averaging 51 years of age showed impressive gains in contrast sensitivity, measured by similar tests with Gabor patches.
This translated into real-world improvements in vision. After training, the volunteers were able to read more than two lines further down an optical chart held 40 centimetres from their eyes – corresponding to a reduction in “eye age” from 50.5 to 41.9 years. Reading speed increased by about 4 seconds per sentence, which would cut the time to read a page of The New York Times without glasses by an average of 5.3 minutes from the pre-training performance of more than 12 minutes.
As expected, there were no differences in the eyes’ ability to focus after the training. “Every single change is in the brain,” says Polat.
Although Levi’s experiments were run using a PC, the first product will be an iPhone app because of the convenience of the device and its high-quality screen. The cost of the app is expected to be around $95, covering an initial training period of about three months during which users will train for 15 minutes, three times a week. After that there will be a small monthly fee for less-intensive “maintenance” training.
Given that our eyes eventually lose their ability to focus on close objects, the app is unlikely to be a panacea for presbyopia. But Lee Duffner, an opthalmologist in Hollywood, Florida, who serves as a clinical expert for theAmerican Academy of Opthalmology, suggests that it might delay the need to adopt reading glasses. “I think they’re probably on to something,” he says.