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Using first person shooting games to improve vision

A person plays a video game at a Sony Playstation in the Sony's flagship store in Berlin, April 27, 2011.

Thomas Peter/REUTERS

A first-person shooter game called Medal of Honor has been used by brain researchers to help improve the vision of adults who were born with cataracts in both eyes.

But now Daphne Maurer, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at McMaster University is out to replace the game because it is considered too violent.

"We are building our own game which we hope will be better because it won't be violent," said Prof. Maurer, who is discussing brain plasticity at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Vancouver this week.

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Ms. Maurer said the video game, in which a shooter who is supposed to represent an elite U.S. soldier who takes on an assortment of enemies, contains elements that promote eye exercise, with game players required to watch not only what is happening directly in front of them but also action developing on the edges of the screen.

The game requires people to visually monitor what is happening and to make fast decisions to react to the action.

In studies, she said, subjects who played 40 hours of the game had noticeable improvement in some aspects of vision.

She said the changes occur because the game helps develop "plasticity" in the brain, and subjects can open up channels in the visual nervous system that allow them to "retrain their visual range."

As encouraging as the Medal of Honor results are, Ms. Maurer said researchers are looking for alternatives, because there are concerns that people could experience violent thoughts or become addicted to the game if they play it too much.

"I don't relish asking people to play these first person shooters," she said, adding that she has never played the game herself.

"That's why we are developing our own game...and it remains to be seen if we are clever enough to develop a game that will be as effective [without being violent]"

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Ms. Maurer said the subjects she works with are cautioned in advance about the possible negative effects of playing the game.

" They know what they are getting into and they know that there is a small risk that they might become addicted. . .that is precisely the reason we limit them to 10 hours a week and no more than two hours a day," she said.

Takao Hensch, a professor of neurology at Harvard University, said research on brain plasticity is opening up some exciting new possibilities for medical treatment.

The human brain is at its most plastic state in early years of life, but molecular brakes develop within the brain as we age.

Mr. Hensch said if those brakes can be released, it raises the possibility that an adult's brain can "reset" some functions that might have been lost because brain damage.

"We're very much interested in any kind of adult brain injury or trauma that might be in need of repair," he said.

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