Simple Screening

By Michael Gulak

A 1970’s study tracks eye movement during problem solving. (Source: Hans-Werner Hunziker)

Let’s face it; everyone loves to unwind at the end of a long day with a bit of television. But who knew exactly how we watch it can reveal so much about our own health?

As much as television is a prominent source of entertainment, it’s now also an important tool to detect neurological disorders.And that means televisions in every clinic and doctor’s office. Well, at least that’s what researchers at Queen’s University and the University of Southern California (USC) are hoping for one day.

Neurological disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and Parkinson’s disease each affect ocular control and involve attention dysfunctions. Queen’s professors Douglas Munoz, Giovanna Peri, James Reynolds and USC’s Ian Cameron were able to exploit this fact to develop a novel diagnosis method — they evaluate how patients move their eyes while watching television and link this to possible disorders.

In the initial study, 108 participants were told to “watch and enjoy” television clips for 20 minutes while the research team repeatedly changed channels and recorded eye movements. The data was compared to normative eye-tracking data and 224 quantitative features of “visual attention” were defined. This comparison allowed them to identify the key features that differentiated patients with neurological disorders from control subjects.

The team used the eye-tracking data to identify adults with Parkinson’s disease with 89.6 percent accuracy and children with ADHD or FASD with 77.3 per cent accuracy.

So what does this mean in practical terms? Well, for the first time, a person’s neurological health can be evaluated through a low-cost, easily deployable study of their behaviour. Current tests involve rigorous, structured behavioural tasks and neuroimaging, both of which are costly and labour-intensive.

More importantly, these neurological tests are generally conducted with young children and the elderly, and this new method eliminates the need for a patient to understand and comply with complex instructions. It can be used on children as young as six-months-old.

The new test is already available at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston, and Dr. Douglas Munoz, a lead researcher in the study, said it has unique benefits. “It’s key to get a diagnosis of autism as early as possible so that children get the appropriate therapy they need early,” Dr. Munoz said. “[Diagnosing] Parkinson’s early is also important so people at risk can start treatments or alterations in lifestyle that are deemed protective right away.”

With its simple methodology, this new test may offer a brighter future to early diagnosis.

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