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Scientists Study Whether ‘Vision Training’ Improves Baseball Players’ Performance

IU optometry researchers are partnering with the IU baseball team on the project.

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IU baseball player Patrick Loeffler wears “strobe glasses” during batting practice. Photo by Kevin Fryling, Indiana University

(PRESS RELEASE) A great baseball team requires a coach with the vision to win. It also requires players with the vision to literally see the ball as it flies over the plate at speeds that regularly reach up to 90 mph.

This simple fact has spawned a small industry over the past several decades that purports to improve batting performance by teaching players to see more clearly, track the ball more accurately and improve their hand-eye coordination. Yet the effectiveness of these methods has remained largely untested by rigorous scientific methods.

In response, Indiana University researchers at the IU School of Optometry, in collaboration with the Duke Institute of Brain Sciences, launched a collaboration last year to study vision training in baseball.

The players in the study are members of the IU baseball team under head coach Jeff Mercer. The lead researcher on the project at IU is Nicholas Port, an associate professor at the IU School of Optometry.

“You’re trying hit a round ball with a round stick — when that ball is traveling at 70 to 90 miles per hour at a distance of 60 feet — so, presumably, vision is important in baseball,” Port said. “What we decided to do was design a study to see whether, in a systematic and scientific way, we could measure the effects of vision training on baseball performance.”

To conduct the study, Port recruited players from the IU baseball team to participate in 30-minute exercises at least three times per week for nine weeks. Lyndsey Ferris, a Ph.D. student at the IU School of Optometry, also joined the project to lead data collection.

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“We really tried to tailor our tests to the players’ strengths and weaknesses, so they were constantly challenged to get to that next level of improvement,” said Ferris, who is also a member of the Air Force. “The general feedback from the players has been very positive; they oftentimes ask to get another round of a particular activity.”

Nicholas Port, left, and Lyndsey Ferris review information on a player’s swing. Photo by Kevin Fryling, Indiana University

These tests include three main exercises:

  • The use of a “light rail,” in which players are asked to press a button at a specific moment as a small LED light travels down a long track. This test is designed to simulate the eye movement required to trace a baseball in flight.
  • A tablet-based test to gauge players’ ability to quickly discriminate between different targets and act in a specific way upon certain targets.
  • “Strobe glasses,” in which players’ vision is completely blocked 10 to 90 percent of time as they swing a bat at a ball in flight.

The players also participated in a week of baseline tests before the main study. They took up to 500 swings to gauge their starting batting consistency and performance. For the parts of the study involving swinging a bat, the players’ form was recorded by cameras that captured the physics of each motion.

These tests were conducted at the Dr. Lawrence D. Rink Center for Sports Medicine and Technology, which is the recently constructed facility at the south end zone of IU’s Memorial Stadium, and the batting cages in the baseball complex at Bart Kaufman Field.

As a first baseman at Wright State University, where he also served as head coach before joining IU in 2018, Mercer is familiar with the challenge of striking a moving object in flight. He said the ability to make out the smallest details, such as the placement of the hand on the ball as it leaves the pitcher’s grip or the spin of the ball as it proceeds over the plate, can provide players with critical information in the heat of the moment.

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“Being an offensive player myself in my career, I understand the importance of vision,” he added. “So, when someone came up to me to talk about potentially helping improve (our players’) vision and their ability to recognize moving objects more quickly, and hopefully increase their hand-eye-coordination … it was a no-brainer. Being at a university with the capabilities and the research opportunities (of IU), it’s a tremendous advantage.”

Port and Ferris plan to conduct a second round of data collection in the fall, after the whirlwind of the college baseball season is over. They also plan to enroll women from the IU softball team in the study’s second phase.

Port’s collaborator and the lead researcher on this study is Greg Appelbaum, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine. The research is supported by a grant from the U.S. Army Research Office.

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First US Patient Gets Wireless Retinal Device Implant

It’s aimed at restoring partial sight to patients with advanced age-related macular degeneration.

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(PRESS RELEASE) PITTSBURGH – UPMC has implanted the first patient in the U.S. with a new wireless retinal device as part of a clinical trial aimed at restoring partial sight to patients with advanced age-related macular degeneration.

“Vision research has advanced dramatically in the recent past and UPMC is at the forefront of this revolution. This is the first of many such breakthroughs led by UPMC and Pitt that will benefit patients with vision loss in our community and around the world,” said José-Alain Sahel, MD, director of the UPMC Eye Center, Eye and Ear Foundation chair of ophthalmology and distinguished professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who initiated the trial at UPMC. “We are proud to be the first center in the United States to test this next generation retinal implant that could help treat an incurable disease like AMD.”

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The system, called PRIMA, is designed to restore sight in patients blinded by retinal degeneration. It consists of a 2 millimeter-by-2 millimeter, 30-micron thick miniaturized wireless photovoltaic chip placed under the damaged retina. It works in tandem with augmented reality glasses that have a built-in miniaturized camera and infrared projector.

The chip acts like a tiny artificial retina, made up of 378 tiny electrodes that convert infrared light from the glasses to electrical signals that are carried by the optic nerve to the brain. After receiving the implant, patients undergo an intensive rehabilitation program that trains their brains to understand and interpret the signals from the implant in combination with their remaining natural vision. Compared to earlier-generation implants, PRIMA is wireless and has significantly more electrodes, which allows for the transmission of more visual information.

“This is an incredibly exciting first for us at UPMC and I’m honored to be a part of it,” said Joseph Martel, MD, the implanting surgeon at the UPMC Eye Center and the Pitt School of Medicine, and the principal investigator of the trial at UPMC. “I’m grateful to our patients who have volunteered to participate in this trial, without whom this would not be possible.”

AMD is the leading cause of vision loss in people older than 50. Today, it affects approximately 14 million people in the United States, and the prevalence is expected to rise as the baby boomers age. As AMD progresses, the center of vision becomes increasingly blurry. “Atrophic” AMD, which accounts for a large proportion of advanced cases, has no curative treatment available.

The UPMC feasibility trial is running in parallel with the first-in-human trial in France, which involves five patients with advanced AMD, who now have been followed for more than a year. The 12-month results from the French study demonstrated the ability of most patients to identify sequences of letters and there were no device-related serious adverse effects.

“We are working with a great sense of urgency because the aging population of the United States, especially the western Pennsylvania region we live in, will see a significant rise in the number of patients at risk for vision loss through diseases like age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and vascular eye disease, as well as earlier onset genetic conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa,” said Sahel. “This is why our physicians and researchers at UPMC and Pitt, in collaboration with our U.S. and international colleagues — especially at the Paris Vision Institute at Sorbonne University — are taking a multi-pronged effort to treat and rehabilitate patients with vision impairments.”

In March 2019, UPMC broke ground on the UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Tower at UPMC Mercy, which when completed, will provide advanced specialty clinical care and innovative programs for visually impaired patients. It also will be the home for the vision research program at Pitt and UPMC.

The PRIMA implant was invented by Daniel Palanker, professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University, and licensed and developed by Pixium Vision, a spin-off from the Paris Vision Institute. Sahel is a co-founder of Pixium and holds shares in the company.

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There Might Be a Faster and Cheaper Way to Test for Myopia

The research comes from Flinders University in Australia.

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(PRESS RELEASE) Myopia could become significantly easier to assess, according to a group of scientists.

Progressive research at Flinders University in Australia has identified a new method to measure how it affects the eye, a new article in PLOS ONE reveals.

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The work was based on testing of 70 volunteers, with the Flinders ophthalmology and medical device research institute experts taking a novel approach with optical coherence tomography (OCT), a device already available in most optometric and all ophthalmic practices.

“Our work uses the OCT and finds irregularities at this scale that correlate with the size of the eye, and therefore the degree of myopia,” says eye specialist Dr. Stewart Lake, from Flinders University.

“This may help monitor, measure, and explore the effects of myopia and how it leads to vision loss,” he says, adding that further development could make the system suitable for use in regular clinical practice.

Prior research elsewhere with MRI scanning has demonstrated large scale irregularities in the eyeball in highly myopic eyes.

OCT can sample the shape of the eye on a much smaller scale than MRI. The OCT testing will be far cheaper, is more readily available and repeatable as a test, researchers say in the article.

Myopia (short or near-sightedness) is for many an inconvenience requiring glasses or contact lens to correct. However, globally it is an epidemic and a major cause of vision loss and sometimes blindness.

Myopia is defined practically by the strength of lens required to correct eyesight. It was already known that myopia relates strongly to the size/length of the eyeball.

Global estimates forecast up to 5 billion people will have myopia and 1 billion people could suffer with high myopia by 2050, placing a significant burden on health systems to manage and prevent myopia-related ocular complications and vision loss.

This seven-fold increase, between 2000 and 2050, would make myopia the leading cause of permanent blindness worldwide.

High myopia increases the risk of pathological ocular changes such as cataract, glaucoma, retinal detachment and myopic macular degeneration, all of which cause irreversible vision loss

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Prevent Blindness Promotes Glaucoma Awareness This Month

More than 3.2 million Americans ages 40 and over have the condition.

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(PRESS RELEASE) CHICAGO – According to estimates from the Prevent Blindness report “Future of Vision: Forecasting the Prevalence and Costs of Vision Problems,” more than 3.2 million Americans ages 40 and over have glaucoma in the year 2020. The number is expected to increase as the population ages. Glaucoma, often referred to as the “the sneak thief of sight,” is a leading cause of vision loss that damages the optic nerve. Although symptoms may not be noticeable at first, glaucoma slowly diminishes peripheral vision, making activities such as driving increasingly difficult.

January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month and Prevent Blindness, the nation’s oldest volunteer eye health and safety nonprofit organization, seeks to educate the public on the disease, including risk factors, types of glaucoma, treatment options and more. Prevent Blindness offers a dedicated web page providing patients and their caregivers with free information at https://www.preventblindness.org/glaucoma or its online resource, Living Well with Low Vision at https://lowvision.preventblindness.org.

More women than men have glaucoma. Risk factors for glaucoma also include:

  • Age – The older you are, the greater you are at risk (especially those more than 60 years old).
  • Race – African-Americans age 40 and over are 4-5 times more likely to have glaucoma than others. Hispanics are also at increased risk for glaucoma as they age. Those of Asian and Native American descent are at increased risk for angle closure glaucoma.
  • Family History – If you have a direct relative with glaucoma, you are more likely to get glaucoma. If you are diagnosed with glaucoma, strongly encourage your family members to get complete eye exams.
  • Medical History – You are at higher risk if you have a history of high pressure in the eyes, previous eye injury, long term steroid use, or are farsighted or nearsighted.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) also states that those with diabetes, migraines, high blood pressure, poor blood circulation or other health problems affecting the whole body are at increased risk of glaucoma.

“The year 2020 is an ideal reminder for all of us to make the resolution today to save our vision for tomorrow,” said Jeff Todd, president and CEO of Prevent Blindness. “By detecting vision problems and treating them early, including those from glaucoma, we can help to avoid significant vision impairment.”

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