Factors in Learning And Plasticity: Healthy Vision (FLAP)

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The University of Alabama at Birmingham




Central Visual Impairment
Macular Degeneration


Behavioral: Condition 1: Training visual sensitivity
Behavioral: Condition 2: Training spatial integration
Behavioral: Condition 4: Combination training
Behavioral: Condition 3: Training spatial attention

Study type


Funder types



300006197 (Study 1)

Details and patient eligibility


A greater understanding of plasticity after central vision loss can inform new therapies for treating low vision and has the potential to benefit millions of individuals suffering from low vision. The treatment of low vision is particularly relevant to the mission of the National Eye Institute (NEI) to support research on visual disorders, mechanisms of visual function, and preservation of sight. The comparison of different training and outcome factors is in line with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Research Domain Criteria (RDOC) framework and studies in an aging population are consistent with the mission of the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

Full description

Research on perceptual learning (PL) has been dominated by studies that seek to isolate and improve individual visual processes. However, an important translational outcome of PL research is to address the needs of patients with vision loss, who seek to improve performance on daily tasks such as reading, navigation, and face recognition. These more ecological cases of behavioral change and cortical plasticity, which are inherently complex and integrative, have revealed significant gaps in a more holistic understanding of how multiple visual processes and their associated brain systems jointly contribute to durable and generalizable PL. To address these gaps, here the investigators study simulated and natural central vision loss. The investigators focus on macular degeneration (MD), one of the most common causes of vision loss (projected to affect 248 million people worldwide by 2040), which results from damage to photoreceptors in the macula that disrupts central vision. Such central vision loss is a superb lens through which study to how ecologically relevant changes in the use of vision relate to changing brain activity and connectivity because it represents a massive alteration in visual experience requiring reliance on peripheral vision for daily tasks. With the use of eye-trackers and gaze-contingent displays that induce central scotomas, central vision loss can be simulated in normally seeing individuals, who then develop peripheral looking patterns that resemble compensatory vision strategies seen in MD patients. Ideal use of peripheral vision requires improvement in multiple vision domains, three of the most important being: early visual processing (e.g., visual sensitivity), mid-level visual processing (e.g., spatial integration), and attention and eye-movements. To date, no study has systematically investigated these three domains of PL and their neural underpinnings. The proposed research plan rests on rigorous prior work showing that PL influences multiple brain structures and functions related to these three domains. The investigators propose a novel approach of systematically measuring how different training regimes related to the three domains influence a broad range of psychophysical and ecological behaviors (Aim 1), how these changes arise from plasticity in brain structure and function (Aim 2), and how PL after simulated central vision loss compares to PL in MD (Aim 3). This work is significant and innovative as it will be the first integrated study of PL characterizing multiple trainable factors and their impact on diverse behavioral outcomes and on cutting-edge assessments of neural representations and dynamics. It is also the first study to directly compare PL in MD patients with PL in a controlled model system of central visual field loss with simulated scotomas, which if validated will allow the use of this model system to interrogate MD in larger samples of healthy individuals. The Investigators will also share a unique dataset that will help the field to understand behavioral and neural plasticity after central vision loss and individual differences in responsiveness to training. Finally, this work will illuminate basic mechanisms of brain plasticity after sensory loss that may generalize to other forms of rehabilitation after peripheral or central damage.


120 estimated patients




18 to 30 years old


Accepts Healthy Volunteers

Inclusion criteria

  • Aged 18-30
  • Corrected vision (20/40 or better)
  • No reported incidence of retinal pathology.

Exclusion criteria

  • Pacemaker or any ferromagnetic metal implanted in their body
  • Metal of any type implanted in their head (limited dental work is acceptable)
  • Claustrophobia
  • Needing non-standard glasses (other than the simple MR-compatible glasses that can be supplied) for best-corrected distance vision
  • Being hearing-impaired
  • Weight over 300 pounds
  • Maximum body girth over 60 inches
  • Previous serious head injury
  • Presence of hallucinations or delusions
  • Excessive old, or colorful tattoos, especially near the head
  • Pregnancy
  • Braces/permanent retainer

Trial design

Primary purpose

Basic Science



Interventional model

Parallel Assignment


Single Blind

120 participants in 4 patient groups

Condition 1: Training visual sensitivity
Experimental group
A standard Perceptual Learning approach to train early visual processes of discriminating the orientation of Gabor patches presented at threshold- level contrast. Preliminary data, using this method, in normally seeing and MD participants show both feasibility and preliminary evidence that this training gives rise to improvements in acuity.
Behavioral: Condition 1: Training visual sensitivity
Condition 2: Training spatial integration
Experimental group
Most visual tasks involve integrating features to discriminate objects, therefore requiring brain areas that can integrate features from multiple receptive fields from early visual areas. Thus spatial integration involves what investigators refer to as mid-level vision. Spatial integration is a particular concern in developing a PRL since an area of the visual periphery that is best suited to discriminate a simple visual feature may not be appropriate to integrate information across objects, such as in reading or recognizing facial identity or expression. Investigators address this issue with a targeted spatial integration training approach developed by MPI Seitz and based on contour integration tasks used in previous PL studies to train mid-level visual processes. Target stimuli consist of contours formed by spaced Gabors. Difficulty of detecting the target is manipulated by varying orientation jitter of Gabors making up the target.
Behavioral: Condition 2: Training spatial integration
Condition 3: Training spatial attention
Experimental group
A key attribute of most real-world visual tasks is that individuals alternate shifting and holding attention and eye movements to different objects in the visual field while searching for and discriminating possible sources of visual information. To train this, investigators will implement a task structure that requires participants to alternate between holding and switching attention and making targeted eye movements. The basic task is to press a key whenever a red circle appears in a series of other colored circles, with a target presented every 2 to 4s. Participants must maintain vigilance for relatively long periods, detect objects in the near periphery, switch attention based upon exogenous and endogenous cues, and make eye- movements to move areas of spared vision to those locations. These are aspects of attention and eye movements not incorporated in Conditions 1 and 2.
Behavioral: Condition 3: Training spatial attention
Condition 4: Combination training
Experimental group
In Condition 4, investigators combine the elements of Conditions 1-3. The investigators test the extent to which a combined training gives rise to the joint benefits of each training individually, or integrative benefits potentially surpass the benefits of the individual training alone. The visual sensitivity task from Condition 1 will alternate across blocks with the spatial integration task from Condition 2, using the timing of targets and location switches from Condition 3; Gabors or contours are used as targets instead of the red- circle in Condition 3 and a fixation point is presented instead of distractors to maintain a similar stimulus configuration as Conditions 1 and 2.
Behavioral: Condition 4: Combination training

Trial contacts and locations



Central trial contact

Rachel A Chua, MS; Kristina M Visscher, PhD

Data sourced from clinicaltrials.gov

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