Friday, February 21, 2014

Eye of the Tiger

A bit of a disclaimer about this week's posting.  I'm in no way endorsing or promoting the product I'm about to discuss.  I have not personally used or purchased it.  In fact I encourage anyone to approach a product that uses the phrase "brain training" with a healthy dose of skepticism. All that said, if results hold up it's interesting and thus worth discussion.

Recently a new app has been generating some buzz in neuroscience circles.  Dr. Aaron Seitz has developed UltimEyes, a program which claims to improve visual acuity by training the visual cortex.  Seitz recently published a study wherein baseball players seemingly exhibited significant improvements in vision (and subsequently hitting).

First the bad news.  Although Seitz is a serious researcher with a prominent background in the discipline his UltimEyes study was preliminary at best.  Due to a variety of factors (which reportedly center around requests originating from the player's coach) the study was non-blinded, the treatment group was non-random and the control group received no placebo.  Further, while vision improvements (as demonstrated by a standard eye chart) were clear and attributable to the study's treatment; hitting improvements (attributed largely by Seitz to improved vision) are easily explainable by other mechanisms.  Essentially the study was conducted during the portion of the season that hitters (the treatment group) improve the most anyway whereas the control group (pitchers) rarely improve much at all.

The good news is that by all appearances the app does improve vision in otherwise healthy adults.  It's important to note that the program does nothing to repair or improve the eye.  If there is some physical cause of poor sight the program will not change that. However, reportedly by training the brain to process Gabor Stimuli more efficiently individuals can see (pun intended) significant improvements in eyesight.

There has been somewhat of a fad recently in so called "brain training" workouts. The goal is to keep the mind agile and stave off the eventual cognitive decline caused by aging.  Most of these workouts are essentially scams.  Keeping your mind active is an important part of overall physical health.  However, these marketed programs generally have no remarkable science behind them.  Any puzzle, discussion, or even meditation which sufficiently stimulates the mind would have the same effect as an expensive brain training program. Furthermore, all o the above can be found far cheaper than a brain trainer.

Seitz's work on the other hand is rather novel.  The app presents the visual cortex with stimuli which seem to improve it's efficiency. Stimuli which you are unlikely to encounter on your own.  Unlike brain trainers which simply sell simple puzzles at huge profits, Seitz seems to be selling something you can't easily get for free in your day to day life.  Undoubtedly free copycats will arise which are similarly effective (the app is not complex) but the point is Seitz seems to be peddling more than just snake oil.

Undoubtedly the research needs to be taken further before anyone can claim Seitz's work is worth your time (much less your money) but it's a promising and interesting exploration into how neuroscience can improve individual's day to day lives.  Next up could be improving individuals ability to hear a certain voice in a crowded environment or curing tone deafness.

A final note. By all reports the app is not particularly well made or functional.  Many users report the app crashes often or doesn't properly allow logins.  Again, I do not encourage anyone to purchase the app, only to explore the science behind it.

That's all for this week. Until next time stay safe and rationale.

1 comment:

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