The Eyes Have It

The health and safety of athletes may be strengthened in the future if coaches and trainers can diagnose concussions on the field. Dr. Nicolas Brunet, assistant professor of neuroscience at Millsaps College, is a driving force in changing that “if” to “when.”

Brunet has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study eye tracking within the future of concussion diagnosis. Burnet and his Millsaps student researchers are using a high-end eye tracking device capable of measuring the tiny eye movements made when a gaze is fixed on an object. Although individuals are unaware of making these eye movements, they might function as important biomarkers to assess neurological function. This research has the potential to revolutionize the future of concussion detection in athletics and other areas.

“An individual — after sustaining an apparent head injury — might seem fine, and in case of a sports injury, even be sent back to the field but start complaining about headaches, dizziness and other symptoms days later,” said Brunet. “Those are the undiagnosed cases I hope we can detect by using eye movements. Early intervention might lead to faster recovery.”

According to Brunet’s grant proposal, “the long-term goal is to develop measurable physiological indicators that differ between healthy individuals, and those who sustained a minor traumatic brain injury (TBI). The overall objective in this project is to increase the reliability of using eye-movements to diagnose concussion.”

As part of his research, Brunet and his students are working to collect data from healthy and concussed athletes at Millsaps. He hopes to scale up the data collection by working with other area institutions with large student-athlete populations.

The research also presents a unique opportunity for student participation.

“This project puts Millsaps at the forefront of concussion research, which is a fitting distinction for a small undergraduate college,” Brunet said. “But it also doesn’t just rely on the participating student athletes; the research is also conducted by undergraduate students. So far, there are at least four active students each semester who, after passing the appropriate courses and being trained to operate a sophisticated eye tracker, collect data from participants.”

Ultimately, Brunet sees this research supporting coaches and trainers with concussion diagnose on the field.

“Although mobile gaze interfaces are rapidly evolving, smart phones are not equipped, yet, with cameras that have the characteristics necessary to turn the proposed technique into a smart device application. Smartphone cameras, however, are improving exponentially. I am therefore confident that diagnostic eye tracking on the field will become a reality in the not-so-distant future.”

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