How virtual reality can treat a common vision disorder

Jacob Kogan had no idea he was living with convergence insufficiency, a vision disorder where the eyes don’t work together to focus on an object.

“I would have to keep my eyes closed for long periods of time. I felt like they were burning. And sometimes I would even feel a little bit sick to my stomach,” Kogan said.

He says it was fate that led him to discover the condition during Dr. Tara Alvarez’s college class.

“While most of us don’t really think about how we move our eyes, it’s actually a really critical skill for reading. Because if you think about it, when you move your eyes inward and outward, that’s how we bring information into the brain,” said Alvarez, professor at the department of biomedical engineering at NJIT. “And if the way in which we move our eyes is too slow, or uncoordinated, that impedes how much information we can get into the brain.”

The condition affects somewhere between 4 and 17 percent of children, and about 50 percent of patients with post concussive syndrome resulting from traumatic brain injury. But many have no idea they have convergency insufficiency. When undiagnosed, it can interfere with a child’s ability to concentrate and to learn.

“They’re going to experience blurry vision, double vision, headaches. They’re going to feel pulling around the eyes. And then in terms of what they may experience while they’re reading, they will constantly lose their place. They may see words actually floating, or they may experience what’s called a halo effect, which is like a double vision,” said Alvarez.

Alvarez created a virtual reality program designed to treat the disorder.

“This is basically what Jacob is seeing. And then what you’ll see is this orb is actually coming toward Jacob like this. And he’ll be able to fixate it, and then puts it in one of these different receptacles, and at the end, he’ll win points for that,” Alvarez said.

The virtual reality program is meant to replace a variety of  traditional home therapy techniques that prove effective only 30 percent percent of the time.

“So a child especially, but this could also be done for young adults or older patients as well, is basically playing a game,” Alvarez said. “And they don’t actually realize that what we’re doing is working their vergance eye muscles, so their ability to see in 3D, similar to you going to the gym.”

“When I first started coming here I would say I couldn’t really work for more than about a half hour straight,” Kogan said. “Now I have no limit on how long I can study, so it’s basically given me new hope in my future and a research career.”

Alvarez is working to bring the program to the kids who need it into schools where they’re screened, optometry offices where they’re treated, and to sports doctors who treat young athletes with concussions. She hopes by this time next year, she’s reached many more children.

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