Perceptual training can greatly improve vision in the elderly, according to a study in the November 4 issue of the Journal of Vision. Funded by the National Institute on Aging and conducted by a team of researchers affiliated with University of California, the study examined vision changes in older adults stemming from cortical processing.

While previous research has centered on age-related changes in optical focus (decline in near or far vision), this study is the first of its kind to analyze the deterioration of vision due to changes in visual processing, says lead author G. John Andersen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Decreased depth perception, spatial vision and contrast sensitivity are normal changes in vision associated with advanced age.

But, could these changes be reversed?

To test the effects of perceptual training, the researchers employed a texture discrimination exercise. “The texture discrimination test requires the subject to judge a pattern (horizontal or vertical bar) composed of line segments,” says Dr. Andersen. “So, the test is measuring the ability to determine a simple shape from a pattern of texture.”

The findings of this study indicated that after just two one-hour sessions of the exercise, subjects were able to improve their vision significantly and maintain that vision for up to three months.

So, what does this mean for vision therapy practitioners and their elderly patients? “We do not yet know the frequency needed to maintain improved function. We are planning studies that will assess this issue,” says Dr. Andersen.

Andersen GJ, Ni R, Bower JD, Watanabe T. Perceptual learning, aging, and improved visual performance in early stages of visual processing. J Vis. 2010;10(13):4.