Can perceptual learning be used to treat amblyopia beyond the critical period of visual development?

Visual Neuroscience Group, School of Psychology, The University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK.
Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics (Impact Factor: 2.18). 11/2011; 31(6):564-73. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-1313.2011.00873.x
Source: PubMed


Amblyopia presents early in childhood and affects approximately 3% of western populations. The monocular visual acuity loss is conventionally treated during the 'critical periods' of visual development by occluding or penalising the fellow eye to encourage use of the amblyopic eye. Despite the measurable success of this approach in many children, substantial numbers of people still suffer with amblyopia later in life because either they were never diagnosed in childhood, did not respond to the original treatment, the amblyopia was only partially remediated, or their acuity loss returned after cessation of treatment.
In this review, we consider whether the visual deficits of this largely overlooked amblyopic group are amenable to conventional and innovative therapeutic interventions later in life, well beyond the age at which treatment is thought to be effective.
There is a considerable body of evidence that residual plasticity is present in the adult visual brain and this can be harnessed to improve function in adults with amblyopia. Perceptual training protocols have been developed to optimise visual gains in this clinical population. Results thus far are extremely encouraging; marked visual improvements have been demonstrated, the perceptual benefits transfer to new visual tasks and appear to be relatively enduring. The essential ingredients of perceptual training protocols are being incorporated into video game formats, facilitating home-based interventions.
Many studies support perceptual training as a tool for improving vision in amblyopes beyond the critical period. Should this novel form of treatment stand up to the scrutiny of a randomised controlled trial, clinicians may need to re-evaluate their therapeutic approach to adults with amblyopia.

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    ABSTRACT: Experience-dependent plasticity is closely linked with the development of sensory function. Beyond this sensitive period, developmental plasticity is actively limited; however, new studies provide growing evidence for plasticity in the adult visual system. The amblyopic visual system is an excellent model for examining the "brakes" that limit recovery of function beyond the critical period. While amblyopia can often be reversed when treated early, conventional treatment is generally not undertaken in older children and adults. However, new clinical and experimental studies in both animals and humans provide evidence for neural plasticity beyond the critical period. The results suggest that perceptual learning and video game play may be effective in improving a range of visual performance measures and importantly the improvements may transfer to better visual acuity and stereopsis. These findings, along with the results of new clinical trials, suggest that it might be time to reconsider our notions about neural plasticity in amblyopia.
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