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Study Findings Could Inspire New Software to Retrain Brain, Rehabilitate Vision
By Miranda Hitti
WebMD Health News
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
on Thursday, February 08, 2007
Feb. 8, 2007 -- Action video games may sharpen vision by helping players learn to ignore visual distractions.
So say University of Rochester brain and cognitive science researchers Daphne Bavelier, PhD and C. Shawn Green, a graduate student.
They found that novice video game players improved their ability to ignore visual clutter by about 15% to 20% after playing an action video game for 30 hours over four to six weeks.
But don't toss out your glasses just yet.
The improvements were "very, very small because we're looking at people that already have very, very good vision," Bavelier tells WebMD.
"We're looking at measures that you probably won't pick up if you were to just go to your optometrist and have an eye test," she says.
"People think that they're going to replace their prescription lenses with video games -- no, no, no! This is not what this is about," Bavelier says.
Video Game Study
Bavelier and Green studied 32 undergraduates who weren't video game players when the study started.
First, the students looked for the letter "T" written right-side-up or upside-down amidst various amounts of visual clutter on a computer screen. The students were timed as they noted whether the "T" was right-side-up or upside-down.
Next, the researchers randomly assigned the students to play one of two video games for four to six weeks.
One of the games was the action game Unreal Tournament 2004. The other students played Tetris, which isn't an action game.
About the Games
Unreal Tournament has "a lot richer visual environment than Tetris," Bavelier says.
With Unreal Tournament, "you have to analyze the visual field all the time for new visual cues. You don't know where they may be. You don't know when they may appear. You don't know which shape they're going to be," she says.
"In Tetris, you're also on your toes, because you have to go fast," she says. "You have to rotate shapes, but you only have one shape present at a time, and the analysis you have to do is mostly in terms of mental rotation, but you have very little analysis of the visual field."
Playing Video Games for Science
The researchers asked students to play their assigned game for 30 hours over four to six weeks. They told the students not to play for more than two hours a day.
At the end of the study, the students repeated the visual clutter test.
Those who played Unreal Tournament 2004 showed a 15% to 20% improvement in the test, Green tells WebMD in an email. Those playing Tetris showed no such improvement.
Bavelier's team wasn't looking for the hottest video game player. Instead, they wanted to see whether the brain's visual cortex -- the part of the brain that processes vision -- can be retrained.
The study suggests that that may be possible, which might be good news for people with visual cortex problems.
"If you have a lesion there, for example, your eye is fine, but the information reaches the brain and then gets lost because there's not the right hardware to process it," Bavelier says.
The training regimen will include "some of the ingredients of what we think is important in video games," Bavelier says.
The study "doesn't mean that you can go and play for hours at a time," Bavelier says. "The study doesn't show that video games are good for you in general."
"We are interested in brain plasticity," she says, referring to the brain's ability to be retrained.
"Video games are amazing tools for reopening brain plasticity," Bavelier says. "But for your everyday, average person, that doesn't mean that suddenly they can go on a binge of video games and life will be better. There is more to life than just your visual system."
The study is due for publication next week in Psychological Science.
SOURCES: News release, University of Rochester. Daphne Bavelier, PhD, brain and cognitive sciences, University of Rochester. WebMD Medical Reference: "Understanding Vision Problems." C. Shawn Green, graduate student, brain and cognitive sciences, University of Rochester.
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