On paper, it sounds wildly disconnected – that a video game can be used to help an vision condition. But Dr. Robert Hess of McGill University and his research team have discovered an innovative approach to combat adult amblyopia, more commonly referred to as “lazy eye syndrome,” and it has everything to do with introducing the game of Tetris to help people strengthen their eyes.

Before we delve into what Dr. Hess’ people found, let’s briefly cover how those with amblyopia are affected by the condition in their everyday lives. For the longest time, eye care professionals have implemented certain methods to try and strengthen the “weak” eye so a patient experiences better binocular vision. In the past, those methods came down to an eye doctor patching the “good” eye to force the weaker one to grow stronger.

While very common among younger patients, amblyopia is seen in the adult population among those who possess a weak eye that never developed enough strength. The fact of the matter is, treating younger patients with this condition is somewhat easier for eye doctor personnel such as optometrists and ophthalmologists since the brain of a younger patient is still developing and making connections.

In using the game of Tetris to help patients strengthen their weakened eye, Dr. Hess and his McGill University research team figured out how to distribute information between the two eyes during the game cycle rather than implementing a physical patching of the eye. The action of connecting the blocks in Tetris taps into the brain’s plasticity, the team found, and allows the weakened eye to make connections within the brain. During the test, half the participants had their strong eye patched while the other half had images sent to each eye, separating as the game went on. The results – published in the prestigious Current Biology journal – found that those with one eye patched showed moderate improvement in vision, while those who had images sent to both experienced dramatic visual improvement.

According to eye care professionals, the most common cause of visual impairment in children is amblyopia, affecting up to three-percent of the population. As Dr. Hess himself explains, “The key to improving vision in 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. Using head-mounted video goggles, we were able to display the game dichoptically, wherein one eye was allowed to see only the falling objects and the other eye was allowed to see only the ground plane objects.

“It was our belief that, in forcing the eyes to work together, vision in the lazy eye would be improved.”

The matter of how suitable this approach is, with regard to children, is scheduled for assessment later this year in a clinical trial across North America.