The bird’s eye view of neurodegenerative disease

Jun 21, 2022 | Blog, ONDRI Stories

Observing the brain – specifically signs of disease or trauma such as neurodegeneration – through eye tracking, is just as sensitive as doing so through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), according to those working in the field.

This technology may ultimately prove to be much simpler and more cost effective than other options, as the quest to diagnose neurodegenerative diseases and dementia at an earlier stage of life continues.

ONDRI researchers working as part of the eye tracking platform, based in Dr. Doug Munoz’s lab at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, have set up a new company to lock in some of the intellectual property that they have already developed in this field, and to work on bringing this technology to the general public.

The eye brain connection

The circuitry of the brain that controls eye movements, pupil size and blink rate – the system that forms the connections between seeing something, understanding what it is and reacting to it – is one of the best understood parts of the brain.

These brain circuits have been studied for decades and provide a good platform for tracking activity of the brain through the eyes.

When, for example, there is an injury in a part of the brain, the impact on the pattern of eye movement can often be observed by experts who know what to look for.

Measuring brain health through eye tracking is predicted to be at the outset of a trajectory where it will one day be an important tool in clinicians’ armamentarium, helping them observe and track brain activity in a way that is relative non-intrusive and highly effective.

Structured vs. unstructured tasks in eye tracking

ONDRI’s Foundational study (2013-18) incorporated protocols that included both structured tasks – where participants were instructed on how to react to images appearing on a computer screen, such as looking toward or away from specific images – as well as unstructured tasks.

Unstructured tasks involve observing people’s eye movement patterns while they are simply watching short video clips on the screen with no instructions to follow, like watching TV and changing the channel every few seconds.

Of interest to eye tracking scientists are measures such as eye movements, pupil size, and blink rates. To the trained professional, all these data can be analyzed and grouped, and they can ultimately provide a window into activities in the brain.

Searching for new biotypes

Neurodegenerative diseases are difficult to diagnose with certainty in life. Their presence is often detected through symptomology, whereas subtle changes to the brain can begin years or decades before these symptoms appear.

The aim of the eye tracking work being done through ONDRI is to first isolate different bio(logical) types – or classifications of groups of participants through biological measures – and then show how their progression through the course of the diseases can be predicted, over time.

Signs of neurodegenerative diseases through measures such as eye tracking show up much earlier than do symptoms like cognitive decline and visible movement disorders.

Discovering relevant new biotypes in these diseases, which can be monitored through eye tracking methodologies, could make the early detection and tracking of the disease much more predictable and accessible, and could help make the delivery of personalized therapeutic treatments and solutions much more feasible.

Exciting new discoveries through ONDRI

Researchers in Munoz’s lab have discovered significant correlations between eye tracking measures and disease progression, as tracked though symptomology.

The ONDRI study incorporated varied types of assessments, many of which are not typically utilized across all the diseases studied. The ability to compare eye tracking measures to these assessments of cognitive and physical health, allows for highly effective computer algorithms to be developed that can predict disease onset and time course.

“We are very proud of the innovative work that we are doing in our lab,” said Don Brien , Research Associate, who is leading the artificial intelligence work in Dr. Munoz’s eye tracking lab.

“Our goal is that even when we have 90% predictability with our models, that we understand why the other 10% of the data do not conform and use this knowledge to develop a better model. This way we keep getting better and better,” he continued.

Dynamiris = dynamic iris

In 2021, Dr. Munoz led his team in patenting some of their earlier algorithms. Earlier this year, this same team has set up a new company – called Dynamiris – with the goals to:

  1. Continuing to develop the technology and tools through which to deliver their eye tracking protocols
  2. Recruit many more patients, and
  3. Set up the infrastructure to eventually commercialize their offer.

The vision is to bring this technology to the general population as a low-cost, simple-to-use screening tool for neurological and psychiatric diseases.

Dynamiris is managed on a day-to-day basis by Munoz, along with one of his researchers, Janis Kan PhD. Kan brings her years of studying the brain eye connection to the task, including a period setting up an eye tracking lab in Shanghai, China.

“I’m so excited to be working on making eye tracking accessible as an early screening tool for neurological and psychiatric diseases,” said Kan. She continues: “We hope this tool becomes like a blood pressure measure one day, which can be used during regular medical check-ups to monitor brain health and maximize quality of life.”