A University of California, Riverside neuroscientist has been awarded a five-year, $1.7 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to continue groundbreaking research that may lead to new therapies for individuals with amblyopia (lazy eye), dry macular degeneration and cataracts.
Research by Aaron Seitz, associate professor of psychology, already is influencing what scientists know about perceptual learning as it relates to low vision. Perceptual learning - a field of research that emerged about 30 years ago - is important to understanding brain processes, mechanisms of learning, the development of training techniques for tasks requiring specialized sensory skills, and the development of clinical applications to rehabilitate patients with sensory deficits.
His NIH research grant, "Integrating Perceptual Learning Approaches into Effective Therapies for Low Vision," will support further study of how different mechanisms of perceptual learning interact, and will explore better treatment options for individuals with visual defects. This integrated approach into understanding brain plasticity - how the brain changes physically, chemically and functionally due to aging, injury or disease - and perceptual learning so far has been lacking in neuroscience research.
"Science research typically examines isolated processes," he said. "Taking a broader, integrated view requires totally different tools. We need to develop a new model that combines multiple processes or mechanisms for perceptual learning. With this grant I hope we will better understand how these mechanisms can be tuned to train the brain to be more effective."
Earlier research by Seitz challenged the popular assumption that adults learn only by paying attention to something. He found that pairing a visual stimulus with a reward is enough to cause learning, even when an individual is unaware of the stimulus paired with the reward.
"I'm truly excited about this research," said Seitz, who joined the UCR faculty in 2008. "The science is fascinating and has tremendous potential to help people."
Working with Dr. Stacy Pineles at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA, Dr. Pinakin Davey at the College of Optometry at Western University College of Health Sciences in Pomona and Peggy Seri-s at the Institute for Adaptive and Neural Computation at University of Edinburgh, Seitz hopes to develop new therapies involving brain training to improve vision of individuals with amblyopia (lazy eye), dry macular degeneration and cataracts.
For example, amblyopia is a visual deficit that occurs in the cortex of the brain, not the retina. Can the lazy eye be taught to "compete" with the dominant eye? Can the brain be trained to "straighten" the curved lines observed in dry macular degeneration? Can brain training speed up vision restoration after cataract surgery?
Seitz believes the answer to these questions is yes.
By the end of the grant, he hopes to have developed a broader understanding of how multiple sensory systems collaborate; have defined better treatment options for people with low vision; and have developed new models that better explain how multiple areas in the brain contribute to perceptual learning and what training would be beneficial.
"This contri-bution is significant because the development of effective therapies to treat the brain-based aspect of low vi-sion can lead to life-altering benefits for many millions of people worldwide," he said. "This research should also catalyze a paradigm shift in vision research, providing a new framework to understand more ecological forms of learning."
Seitz has worked with the Los Angeles Police Department helicopter pilots and fingerprint examiners to improve visual acuity. His research also will take him to the Riverside Police Department where he will work with patrol officers to improve attention and vision in a sensory environment cluttered with radios, computers and cell phones. Additionally, Seitz has used vision-training exercises he developed to help members of the UC Riverside baseball team improve performance.
He also has founded a company, Carrot Neurotechnology, that creates brain-training video games to improve vision. The company is gearing up for a wide release of tools that can be downloaded to help people with low vision improve their vision or to optimize vision in normally seeing individuals, such as athletes, individuals in law enforcement and others, who are looking to achieve better-than-normal vision.