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Eye tracking shows promise as screening tool for children with FASD

Queen’s University graduate student and Mitacs Accelerate intern Carmela Paolozza tests a young child using SR Research’s EyeLink eye-tracking technology. (Photo by Katelyn Verstraten)

Two groundbreaking discoveries by NeuroDevNet-supported researchers could contribute to the development of a less expensive and faster screening tool to identify young children, and even infants, with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

Prenatal alcohol exposure is considered the most common known cause of developmental disability in the western world. The good news is that early diagnosis and intervention can reduce the risks of school failure, involvement with the law, family disruption and homelessness. Unfortunately, the medical signs are often difficult to recognize in newborns, infants and young children.

That could change as a result of a partnership between Queen’s University and Ottawa-based SR Research Ltd., focused on proving the technology and producing the rigorous evidence needed to help bring a screening product to market.

In a global first, the Queen’s team showed that children exposed to alcohol before birth have less control over their eye movements than typically developing children. The project used equipment from SR Research, creators of world renowned eye-tracking equipment with the best technical specifications available.

In another study, researchers developed analysis tools that would allow SR Research’s EyeLink technology to be used as a low-cost screening tool to identify children with FASD and other neurological and psychiatric disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Parkinson’s disease and autism.

Existing screening processes can take many months to go through, which places a lot of stress on families. The tests are also expensive, require specialized training and are not available everywhere in Canada.

“If we can detect these brain injuries early, it will reduce costs in the health care systems and save years of frustration in the lives of patients,” says William Schmidt, Director of Sales at SR Research.

Hundreds of children from across Canada have participated in the studies. Data generated from those studies is building the clinical evidence base to demonstrate how this technology can be a powerful and sensitive tool for assessing brain function or brain dysfunction in different clinical populations. Researchers hope the technology will one day be used as a clinical tool to complement existing psychological measurement tests.

“Our research is helping to fill the gaps in knowledge that will be needed to ensure regulatory approval and market acceptance,” says Queen’s researcher and project leader James Reynolds.

SR Research’s Eyelink 1000 Plus eye-tracker has been critical to the project, adds Dr. Reynolds. “This technology is state-of-the-art. It has allowed us to dramatically improve both the quality of the data we’re able to generate and to work with younger children. We’re getting fabulous data now from infants as young as 12 months and we might be able to push that even younger.”

Dr. Reynolds is also using this technology in a project with the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto to study the brain development of children in the foster care system.

“A lot of these kids are at risk because they’ve been exposed to various types of trauma,” he says. “If you can show that their brain isn’t developing the way a typically healthy child at that age should be developing, that becomes your hook to ensure that interventions are put in place to stimulate that brain development to catch up to where they should be.”

Research has shown that early detection and interventions, such as those focusing on language and motor skills, can significantly improve a child’s quality of life. “From birth to age five is when the brain is most responsive to that type of stimulation. We predict it could overcome a lot of the early adversity these kids face,” says Dr. Reynolds.

The EyeLink 1000 Plus has several advantages over competing technologies. In addition to having the fastest data rate, highest accuracy and highest resolution of any eye tracking device, it does not require subjects to wear a head-mounted apparatus, which is often heavy and bothersome for young children. The technology can also be integrated into a mobile setting for testing in remote communities.

“This research gives these children hope for leading more fulfilling lives, and represents a potential new market opportunity for our company,” says Dr. Schmidt.  A December 2015 report by Research and Markets estimates the global eye tracking market will grow by US$183.3 million in 2014 to over US$1 billion by 2020 as applications for the technology expand beyond the research community.

A diagnostic clinic in British Columbia will begin working with Dr. Reynolds’ group in 2016 to test the screening tool in parallel with the current standard of care for assessing children for FASD.

“NeuroDevNet has been a great partner in this research,” adds Dr. Schmidt. “They recognize that rigorous empirical backing will be required to bring a product like this through the regulatory process and to market. They’re not only working to get the basic science done, but they also want to make sure something is delivered that has real-world benefits.”