Tara Alvarez, a professor of biomedical engineering who studies the links between visual disorders and the brain and develops novel devices to identify and treat them, has been named a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE).

Alvarez joined approximately 150 new fellows, who represent the top 2 percent of the medical and biological engineering community, at an induction ceremony this past weekend at AIMBE’s 2018 annual meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

"It was very inspiring hearing about all of the advances in so many diverse areas of biomedical engineering," she said of the event, while noting that the city's famous cherry blossoms - at their peak that weekend - were "stunning."

With a multidisciplinary team of engineers, computer scientists, artists and clinicians, Alvarez is currently developing instruments to detect and treat the eye motor disorder known as convergence insufficiency (CI), in which the muscles that control eye movements do not coordinate to focus on near objects. Because each eye sees images separately, the person experiences double and blurred vision, headaches and difficulty concentrating. The impact on cognition and learning can be severe, particularly in children.

The disorder is also one of the primary symptoms of concussion, and Alvarez is working with five major children’s hospitals around the country to test her devices, which are potentially powerful diagnostic tools. She hopes that one day they will help coaches and trainers on the field, for example, decide if it is safe to return a shaken-up player to the game. Follow-on blows can be devastating in the near- and long-term.

As Alvarez explains, “The visual neural circuit composes a lot of space in the brain, and is thus easily damaged by a concussion. In terms of cognitive load, if someone is expending significantly more energy acquiring visual information, then less energy is available for thinking.” 

Her diagnostic machine integrates two devices – a functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) imaging machine and a video-based eye-tracking system – that together detect how changes in brain activity following an injury, including a mild concussion, correspond with changes in eye movements. Strapped to the head, the fNIRS machine uses light beams to measure blood oxygen levels – indicators of neural activity – in different regions of the brain. An ocular device Alvarez has created, known as a Vision and Neural Assessment Equipment system, measures eye movements and accommodation – the ability to see images clearly, which are promising biomarkers for neurological functions such as visual attention and memory.

Once she determined how to test for CI, she put together a team of students and clinicians to help her develop a virtual reality-enhanced therapeutic device, played as a computer game, to treat it. “Therapies (for CI) have not evolved much since the 70s, and while they’re very good, they’re incredibly boring,” she noted. By making them fun, she added, “we hope people will want to do them.”

AIMBE fellows are clinicians, industry professionals, academics and scientists, who have “distinguished themselves through their contributions in research, industrial practice and/or education,” as the organization puts it, adding “ Fundamental to their achievements is the common goal of embracing innovation to improve the healthcare and safety of society.”