Innovative Eye-Tracking Therapy

David Bohil, Professor Mark Mizuko, Claire Bieganek, and Cheyenne Bielmeier
November 22, 2019

Even though the brain isn't a muscle, it benefits from regular exercise. Mental stimulation helps create new synapses and stronger connection points.

"The eye gaze research is used as an intervention method. The idea is to increase stimuli to help clients develop visual processing so they can make sense of the world."

This idea is at the core of complex research being undertaken by Mark Mizuko, professor and head of the UMD Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD), and his students. They are using sophisticated eye-tracking technology to try to develop a treatment paradigm for children with cortical visual impairment (CVI).

CVI is the most common diagnosis for children with serious visual impairment in industrialized countries. Even though the eyes of people with CVI are functional, their brains aren't able to process what they see due to damage to the posterior cortical pathway, the part of the brain responsible for vision. 

David Bohil is one of three students enlisted by Mizuko who began this work as undergraduates and continue it as graduate students. Though there's no existing treatment for CVI, Bohil notes that evidence shows neural visual pathways can be strengthened to improve visual processing. 

People with CVI often have co-occurring conditions, including paralysis and the inability to speak, which makes treatment a challenge. That's why Bohil and his colleagues in CSD have been working on an innovative form of therapy with clients that engages their eyes with rehabilitation exercises that use moving objects, color, and contrast 

"The eye gaze research is used as an intervention method," he explains. "The idea is to increase stimuli to help clients develop visual processing so they can make sense of the world."

During their sessions at the Robert F. Pierce Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic clients are asked to look at a digital screen and use their eyes to complete different tasks. All the while, their gaze is tracked with the latest technological tools.

It starts with simple tasks like looking at a red ball on a computer screen. Eventually, clients may be able to use their eyes to play interactive games and engage in more sophisticated activities.

Bohil points to a marked improvement in one particular client over the last couple of years. After trying out a few different forms of technology with the child, Bohil says they've found an interactive tool that's producing measurable results. The team is working to find a reliable communication method for the client, combining vocalizations with eye gaze activated, symbol-based communication software.

Watching the client's evolution has been affirming for Bohil who has long been interested in language and communication. "The whole purpose is to get them to communicate by whatever means is best for them," says Bohil.

A nontraditional student, Bohil studied Japanese at Michigan State University and then spent time working as a linguist in the Air Force. A few years back, he shadowed a speech therapist and was inspired to return to academia to shift his career path.

"I didn't know anything about this occupation," he says. "It blew me away the way she was interacting with the child."

Collecting quantitative data to demonstrate the effectiveness of the clinic's interventions has been challenging, since each client is unique and responds differently to various forms of technology. "There have been a lot of roadblocks but we have also learned a lot," says Bohil, who has presented the research at national conferences and in Japan.

Pictured above (L to R): David Bohil and Professor Mark Mizuko with CSD graduate students Claire Bieganek and Cheyenne Bielmeier. They presented this research at the ASHA Convention in Orlando in November.

Article updated December 3, 2019