A computer game is helping partially-sighted children to improve functional vision

Computer game improves vision

Visually impaired children in the UK may soon get a new entertaining tool to help them develop critical skills such as safely crossing roads or finding objects of daily use.

The Eyelander game, which will soon begin testing with volunteers, was developed by neuroscientists and video game designers from the University of Lincoln, UK, and the WESC Foundation (The Specialist Centre for Visual Impairment).

“What we are aiming to do is improve the patient’s functional vision, which is needed to perform tasks of independent living,” said computational neuroscientist Jonathan Waddington, who is conducting the trials of Eyelander at WESC.

“We are tapping into the brain’s innate ability to adapt (also known as neuroplasticity), and because substantial changes in vision are possible even into adulthood, this could yield real results.”

The game, designed to address impairments caused rather by a brain injury than damage to the eye itself, features attractive and intense landscapes with exploding volcanoes, a herd of angry cows, an oversized baby and travelling avatars.

it focuses on the so-called functional vision, which is used to perform everyday tasks such as safely crossing the road or finding a book on a bookshelf. The scientists believe it could be reinforced by helping the brain better relay visual messages through the impaired visual pathways.

“The game draws on existing training programs, which only offer black and white, two-dimensional shapes, and no interaction,” Waddington explained. “The key to making the game successful is that we have combined our knowledge of neuroscience and psychology with expertise in game development so it is both effective and engaging.”

About one in every 1,000 children in the UK is either born or develops some form a visual impairment. That makes about 25,000 blind and partially-sited children across the UK.

Damage of brain areas responsible for transmitting and interpreting visual signals is one of the most common causes of such impairments.

The game requires the children to find a shape on the screen surrounded by a group of similar distracting shapes, and track its movement. As the game progresses through its 12 levels, multiple colours and more distracting shapes are introduced.

The game also features advanced options to adapt the difficulty to the specific cognitive and visual impairment of the person playing, such as changing the size or number of shapes, and the amount of time the player has to complete each level.

“Research has already shown that this type of training can lead to significant recovery of sight following damage to visual centres of the brain in adults, so it is vital that those using it are motivated by something interesting and engaging,” said Timothy Hodgson, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and head of the School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln, overseeing the research.

The Knowledge Transfer Partnership has awarded the project £93,000 of funding from the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board, and the UK's Medical Research Council. The WESC Foundation has contributed a further £45,000.

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