Eye Movement Exercises Improve Reading Speed in People with Age-Related Macular Degeneration

A new method for training eye movements can help people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) read faster. According to early results from an ongoing study, people who practiced these eye-movement skills, which don’t involve looking at words, could read a page of the newspaper about 5 minutes faster after the training.

AMD blurs the sharp, central vision needed to read or drive. It is a leading cause of vision loss among people over the age of 50, and it affects 25 percent of people in the United States older than 74.

Early in the disease, people with AMD develop a central “blind spot,” but keep their peripheral vision. As AMD advances, a person may have only spotty clear areas in their vision, or the image they see may look wavy. An ophthalmologist can diagnose AMD with a widely available test during an office visit. The test, called optical coherence tomography (OCT), allows the doctor to see a cross section of the eye’s retina, the area affected by AMD.

When it comes to reading, glasses that magnify the page are not enough to help a person with AMD read text clearly. That’s because AMD also affects eye movements. In people with normal vision, the eyes jump from spot to spot in a systematic way while reading, a movement called saccades. With AMD, saccades are abnormal—a person’s gaze is unsteady, or the eyes jump randomly.

The new research is testing a method to teach people with AMD to move their eyes in a more normal way, and comparing the technique to other therapies. Over the course of several years, about 100 people with AMD have volunteered to participate, either at the laboratory of William H. Seiple, PhD, Chief Research Officer at Lighthouse Guild and Research Professor of Ophthalmology at NYU School of Medicine, or at his colleagues’ laboratory at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Volunteers are assigned to one of four groups labeled per the intervention method (Eye-Movement Training, Preferred Retinal Locus (PRL) Awareness, Rapid Serial Visual Presentation or Control Group) and their reading speed is tested before and after their intervention:

  • Eye-Movement Training. This is the newest intervention method. The volunteers in this group sit at a computer and practice moving their eyes by following a target – a bright flash that appears on a dark screen and moves either side to side or up and down. The once-a-week session lasts between one and two hours, and is repeated for between four and eight weeks.
  • PRL Awareness. For comparison to eye-movement training, a second group of volunteers receives training in PRL awareness. This widely used technique teaches people to “look around” their blind spot to make use of their peripheral vision.
  • Rapid Serial Visual Presentation. A third group receives this therapy, which involves reading words presented individually.
  • Control Group. Volunteers in the fourth group of patients come to the laboratory but received no training or therapy.

Only the volunteers who used the new eye-movement training technique have improved their reading speed, on average between 25 and 30 percent. More testing is needed to validate the technique with a larger group of study participants, and to make it widely available. In the meantime, Dr. Seiple and colleagues are working to create a training system that can be used at home on a tablet or other device.

Learn more about the work Lighthouse Guild Research Institute is focused on to help people with vision loss.