New Eye Test May Detect Learning Disabilities

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Byline: Ann McIlroy Toronto Globe and Mail

Two-year-old Jakeson Bowlby has a bulls eye sticker on his forehead that helps a computer system track the movement of his eyes.

He sits in a high chair and watches a video, but instead of "Toy Story" or another favourite, researchers at Queens University show him a high-definition video that is part of a new test to assess brain function in toddlers. It jumps quickly from one image to another kangaroos sitting under a tree, kids playing soccer, buses and cars zooming by.

How quickly children can zero in on the kangaroos and follow the ball or the vehicles is a measure of how well their brains are directing the movement of their eyes, says Queens neuroscientist Doug Munoz. He has devoted nearly two decades to documenting how eye control is related to abnormal brain function, both in children and adults.

His work is part of a broad investigation involving labs around the world which, over the last two decades, has laid the groundwork for relatively simple tests that could soon be used to detect everything from learning disabilities to the early onset of Parkinsons or Alzheimers disease.

Munozs latest project is aimed at the high chair set, a way to screen youngsters for problems that may make it difficult for them to learn in school. He and his colleague, Laurent Itti at the University of Southern California, have preliminary evidence that shows their "free viewing" test can identify children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

That study was in children over the age of 8. Next, they plan to conduct a trial at St Michaels Hospital in Toronto with both toddlers who were exposed to alcohol in the womb and a control group. They want to see if the test can pick out the children who have suffered brain damage.

Early interventions can make a big difference with these youngsters, says Brenda Stade, the researcher at St. Mikes who, along with Queens Universitys James Reynolds, will help evaluate the test. …