Report: Researcher prepares to market eye exam for concussions

Newsweek reported Tuesday that the latest concussion breakthrough might help NFL doctors make immediate diagnoses on the sideline with a simple eye exam.

The discovery was made by New York University neurosurgeon Uzma Samadani, who has four patents pending and two scientific papers on her research. Also, Dr. Samadani has started Oculogica, a company to commercialize her program. And it has one NFL medical official saying she is on the right track.

There's some excitement building around Oculogica because of a belief that its capability, called EyeBoxCNS, can be built into small, inexpensive devices that every team could have in the locker room. Heck, there's a chance this could end up as a smart phone app, allowing a suburban soccer coach to conduct an accurate sideline concussion scan anytime a couple of players knock heads.

Rich Ellenbogen, a neurosurgeon and co-chairman of the NFL's concussion committee, has looked at Oculogica and sounds a note of cautious optimism, adding that it's still more science project than proven technology. Yet from what he's seen, he thinks Oculogica "can give us objective data about brain injuries, which is what we don't have now."

Samadani's findings were discovered by accident.

Samadani, as part of her work at NYU, wanted to find a way to measure the level of damage in people who had brain injuries so serious they could not follow the instructions typically given to assess a concussion. She and her colleagues decided to experiment with TV. Anecdotally, brain-injured people have a hard time watching TV. "We thought, if we can quantify how well they can watch TV, we might have an outcome we can measure," Samadani says.

Her team set up a camera facing patients to track eye movements 500 times per second while the patients watched the screen. She worked with NYU's math department to write algorithms that could sort out each eye's movement independently and compare the two sets of data.

The goal was to tally how well the patient focused on the TV screen. The surprise from the data was something different: In every patient, the level and type of brain injury correlated to a set of metrics that showed how well the two eyes moved in lock-step. The more injured the brain, the more such micro-movements of the eyes were out of sync. The differences between the movements of the two eyes is too minuscule for any doctor to observe. But the technology could see it.

On February 10, 2012, Samadani was sifting through the data from her tests and had her epiphany. "I almost fainted," she says. "I couldn't believe it. I couldn't sleep for the next two months thinking maybe I was wrong."

Sean Grady, head of the neurosurgery department at the University of Pennsylvania, said Samadani's work is verifiable. And unlike helmet sensors, it is based on fact rather than speculation based on severity of hits.

"So (Oculogica's) work with visual tracking is very important," Grady says. "It's a repeatable test that's not subject to interpretation. You can't fake it."

-- Bill Bradley, contributing editor