Getting pre-schoolers on board with the science of vision testing

A novel device designed by researchers at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) to test the eyesight of pre-schoolers has been awarded $1.2 million in the Health Research Council (HRC) Project grants, which will enable the researchers to put the technology to the test in childcare centres in south Auckland.

Dr Jason Turuwhenua

The technology has been developed over a period of ten years by Dr Turuwhenua and his team to detect 'lazy eye' or amblyopia which, if left untreated, can affect a person’s vision for life.

The test is designed to make the testing of visual acuity – clarity of or sharpness of vision - easier to measure and more accessible than it is at present.

While there is national vision screening of children in New Zealand, testing in young children is tricky. Current vision testing relies on an eye-chart system that requires the child to sit still and focus. Not all can be persuaded to do so – particularly pre-schoolers.

Dr Turuwhenua’s technology solves this problem by identifying instead how a child’s eyes involuntarily respond to carefully designed patterns on a short video featuring moving and different sized dots. The camera of the system measures the eye responses that in turn reveals visual acuity.

They have recently adapted their technology for use on a tablet and the HRC funding will allow their international team of researchers from Canada and New Zealand to test the ability of the technology to monitor the progression of amblyopia in those diagnosed with it.

“We expect that, through this device, better management of the condition will lead to more accurate monitoring,” says Dr Turuwhenua. “This will reduce the need for unnecessary treatments, such as patching, which can be time consuming and challenging for children and their families. Ultimately this will means less stress for whānau.”

“We will develop approaches to measuring visual acuity that are particularly suited to community or home use. Our hope would be that these tests could one day be administered by lay-persons such as parents at home.”

Importantly, a significant component of the development work involves a unique partnership with a group of Māori led childcare centres in the South Auckland area.

The aim is to “strengthen our ability to do impactful research within the local community and at the same time gain a better understanding of eye health in South Auckland” says Dr Turuwhenua. “It is a privilege to work in partnership with the community.”

Margo White I Media adviser

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