Eye tracking technology shows promise as a potential screening tool for children with FASD

December 16, 2013
Children exposed to alcohol before birth have less control over their eye movements than typical children, according to a study by NeuroDevNet researchers.

In the first of several papers examining the potential of eye tracking to improve understanding of brain damage in children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and less severe prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE), investigators explored whether eye tracking tests produce findings complementary to psychological tests typically used to diagnose these disorders.

“We’re using eye tracking to determine areas of poor performance, or weakness in brain function in FASD,” says Principal Investigator and FASD research project co-lead Dr. James Reynolds. Children with FASD are often challenged by a range of mild-to-severe deficits in executive functioning – the capacity to inhibit a response, to plan, and to shift from one activity to another, as well as focus sustained attention and the ability to store and manipulate information in working memory.

“Deficits in response inhibition correlate with oculomotor control in children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and prenatal alcohol exposure,” published online in Behavioural Brain Research in November 2013, explores the potential of eye tracking technology to serve as a screening tool for suspected FASD.

“The results of our study have important implications for clinical practice,” says Dr. Reynolds. “The battery of tests that are used, such as the NEPSY-II we used in our work, are quite extensive and cover many, many domains of brain function. They take a long time and specialized expertise to administer, and are really expensive.”

Within Canada, there are areas where there is no capacity to perform this kind of psychometric testing. Screening children for poor performance or weakness in brain function with eye tracking could help with early identification of those in need of a more comprehensive evaluation. “We found a very high correlation between measures of response inhibition using eye tracking compared with standard psychometric tests. What is important is that the technology is portable, easy to administer, and simultaneously looks at many aspects of how the brain is working,” adds Dr. Reynolds.

“When kids with FASD make saccades (eye movements) towards a target, they are very inaccurate compared to controls. When you look at something, you focus the fovea of the eye – the area of the most visual acuity - to look at it. When your eye stops moving, then you actually start extracting information. We’re finding that among children with FASD and PAE, the kids don’t make accurate eye movements – they end up making several small, corrective movements to try to get the eye to the visual target.” 

Reynolds and his co-authors are following up this study by looking at the correlation of eye movements to working memory and visual spatial skills. “There are a lot of implications for everyday life skills that would result from poor eye movement control,” says Dr. Reynolds. “We’re also looking at a prospective study embedding eye tracking into FASD diagnostic clinics – if funding comes through in 2014-2015.”