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App ‘trains’ your brain to see better

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4 Star

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FoxNews.com

App ‘trains’ your brain to see better

Our Review Summary

This story is a rehash of a similar story that Fox News posted in January 2014. It’s also basically the same story that appeared in a Fox Business video segment in January 2015. Unlike previous versions, the new story thankfully doesn’t claim that the app may confer “super-vision.” But it adds very little to the previous coverage with the exception of a quote from an independent expert. With that one exception, the story reads like an advertisement for the app rather than a journalistic review. With so many other interesting and useful health care stories out there waiting to be investigated, Fox’s fascination with this lightly researched app is mysterious, to say the least.

 

Why This Matters

While we can’t countenance Fox’s repeated coverage of this specific product, we acknowledge that the topic may hold interest for some readers, including several of our more senior reviewers. Presbyopia is a bit of a nuisance for most over the age of 50. Traditional approaches including glasses and contact lenses have their advantages and disadvantages, as does surgical vision correction. An alternative approach, taking advantage of the presumed plasticity of the brain, is an appealing option for many who do not want the more conventional solutions.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The story clearly outlines the costs of the app, initially and on an ongoing basis: “The app is free to download, but the basic 3-month program costs $25. The company suggests following their “Ongoing Vision Care program” in order to keep the benefits indefinitely. For the life-long option, “you can subscribe for $9.99 a month or pay $59.99 for the year.”

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

Readers are told that “90 percent of participants gained the ability to read comfortably without glasses.” That’s a clear enough statement of benefits, but we’re not really sure where it came from. We could find no such statement in the study that’s the basis for the story, although it’s possible that the data presented in the figures support the claim. (The figures are very difficult to read and interpret.) So we’ll give the benefit of the doubt here, but the story would have been stronger if it had addressed the durability of the benefit. How long does the improvement persist?  Do you need to do remedial exercises on an ongoing basis? And if it is durable, why is there a lifetime subscription?

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Applicable

It is unclear how a training exercise could cause harm other than perhaps wasting money. It’s also possible that reliance on an app could cause someone to forego consultation with a professional, thereby delaying diagnosis of a more serious eye condition. But these are not pressing concerns, so we’ll rate this Not Applicable.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The framing for the story is distinctly benefits-oriented. The headline says the app “trains your brain to see better.” We also are told high up in the story that the app, “…is scientifically tested. In a small study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports …” The phrase “scientifically tested” suggests that the app works as described and has been validated in some way. But we don’t receive any caveats about that claim until the second-to-last paragraph, when a more measured comment from an expert in the field is provided: “The idea that these low level changes can translate into higher visual performance that is clinically meaningful to a patient is yet to be demonstrated in any randomized clinical trial.”  So, the app has been scientifically tested, but not adequately to make any conclusions that the training is clinically meaningful.

Ideally, this story would have pointed out what we see as a major limitation of this study — the lack of a real control group. The “control group” consisted of just 3 people who apparently didn’t receive any intervention at all. Had they received a placebo or “sham” vision training, the study would have been able to compare their results with the effect of the app. It’s possible that the benefits witnessed in the study were just a placebo effect reflecting the participants’ expectations of benefit.

Overall, given the very preliminary nature of these findings, we think more emphasis on limitations, higher up in the story, was warranted. We’d also note that the related “Dr. Manny” video segment — which is obviously the basis for the text story — did not include the independent expert comments. We give credit to the story for featuring an outside expert comment below under the “Independent Sources” criterion.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story’s depiction of presbyopia was perhaps more dramatic than it needed to be, given that the condition is easily remedied. “When words on a menu seem small and blurry and reading the newspaper becomes a struggle – these are often side effects of getting old. Presbyopia, the natural aging process of the eye, generally starts around age 40 and worsens over time. There is no cure for the condition, but many ophthalmologists say reading glasses, contact lenses or even surgery can help correct your vision.” However, we don’t think the story crossed the line into disease mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The quotes provided by Dr. Starr (a consultant for the company) are offset by those of Dr. Katz (an expert who is not aligned with the company or the study). Because of the transparency of Dr. Starr’s relationship and the clarifying quotes of Dr. Katz, the story meets the criterion.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The story rightly points out that while not curable, presbyopia can be managed with the use of glasses, contacts and surgery.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story makes it clear that the app is available for use in a smartphone or tablet. It even gives the product’s direct weblink where one can download it.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

Apparently, the first article about Glasses Off from last year was not enough to spark readers’ interest. Nor was the recent Fox Business video segment. This story is a truncated rehash of Fox News’ previous report and adds little to the discussion. A bit of searching also identified many other vision-improving apps, similar to “Glasses Off” – i.e. “UltimEyes.” The story did not mention these competitors or say what, if anything, distinguishes Glasses Off from them.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to be based on a press release, at least one we could locate.  But it does rely heavily on the previous story from 2014.  Little additonal information is provided apart from the comments of Dr. Katz.  We think that his comments are sufficient to allow a pass on this criterion.

Total Score: 7 of 9 Satisfactory

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