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Research Communications

Eye-tracking system can check language comprehension in patients with brain injury 

New NIH grant will support commercialization of medical diagnostic tool

Brooke HallowellATHENS, Ohio (May 18, 2009) – It’s often difficult for clinicians to determine how much a stroke or brain injury has impacted a patient’s ability to understand language. A new device that tracks and analyzes a patient’s eye movements, under development by researchers at Ohio University and Virginia company LC Technologies, Inc., may help better diagnose the severity of the problem.

The research team recently received a $700,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institutes of Health to help commercialize the technology. The SBIR program is designed to move innovative research ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Brooke Hallowell, an associate professor and director of the School of Hearing, Speech and Language Sciences at Ohio University, has been studying how to best evaluate language comprehension in people with stroke or brain injury for more than 20 years. After testing various diagnostic systems on the market, she partnered with LC Technologies of Fairfax, Va., which produces a device that tracks eye movements of people with disabilities. The company also develops and markets assistive technology systems that allow users to communicate via eye motion.

“A person’s ability to communicate and understand language is central to being human. When we lose language ability, it’s an extreme disruption to life,” Hallowell said. “When a person isn’t responsive it’s easy to think they don’t understand. It’s exciting to use this technology to find abilities that otherwise may be overlooked.”

With support from the new SBIR grant, Hallowell and Hans Kruse, an Ohio University professor of information and telecommunication systems, will update the software they developed for laboratory studies for use in a commercial, mass-produced device. The software records the eye movements of patients viewing different visual stimuli and analyzes levels of language comprehension.

LC Technologies, which will assist with writing of the software code and will build the new system, was attracted to the project for its potential impact on clinicians and stroke patients.

“I’d like to get this technology out there so clinicians can use one of these devices to get the results they need to help them make key decisions,” said Dixon Cleveland, chief technology officer of the company, which has been in the eye-tracking business for 20 years.

The new system will track eye movements in both eyes; other devices only examine one eye. The research team will examine the impact of the feature on usability, accuracy, reliability and cost. In addition, the team will develop new visuals for use in the tests, a simple, touch-screen interface for clinicians and displays that show scoring results during and after the test.

“We’ll make it much more automated for people who aren’t experts in eye-tracking systems,” Hallowell explained.

Researchers will test the new system on a control group of adults without any neurological disorders, as well as adults with aphasia – or the loss of language ability – due to stroke. The team will partner with the Stroke Comeback Center in Oakton, Va., to find patients for the study. Ohio University students also will be involved in the research and development of the system.

For more information about this project, contact Brooke Hallowell, (740) 593-1356, hallowel@ohio.edu.