Touching Lives - September 2016
How eye-tracking technology can help children
Children with visual field defects cannot see everything they should be able to. This can seriously affect their development and daily life. It may also be a sign of more serious illness such as a brain tumour. Action funding has helped develop a more child-friendly technique to improve diagnosis.
Visual impairments affect millions of people worldwide and around 29,000 babies, children and young people in the UK. Visual field defects are a type of impairment and children with these problems have gaps in their field of view, meaning they can’t see everything they should be able to. This can have far reaching consequences and especially affect learning, social and physical development, and their safety. They may, for example, be accident prone. Younger children may take longer to reach early milestones like learning to walk. Older children may struggle with reading and joining in different activities. And in turn, any difficulties can also damage a child’s confidence.
There are various causes of visual field problems in children including genetic disorders, infections and brain tumours. Children who have had a stroke, a head injury or meningitis are also at risk, as are those with cerebral palsy who were born prematurely.
Unfortunately, diagnosis of visual field defects, especially in younger children, can be very difficult. Some tests used for adults are impossible for young children to follow, while others are limited by the child’s ability to concentrate or the examiner’s experience, making them unreliable. This means problems can go unrecognised and untreated for longer.
HOW WE'VE HELPED
In 2009 Action Medical Research awarded a team of researchers, led by Professor Robert Minns at the University of Edinburgh, a grant of £135,562. This allowed the team to test a new, child-friendly technique they had developed.
This new assessment system uses a screen, a computer and an infrared eye-tracking device to follow a child’s eye movements as they watch attention-grabbing cartoon icons flash up at different points on the screen. Children only have to look at things as they naturally would and they don’t have to react or press any buttons.
They tested it with children of different ages and even some babies, all with good results.
Accurate diagnosis of a child’s visual field problems can help them to get the support they need. The new approach could also improve diagnosis of life-threatening illnesses and help in monitoring the effectiveness of treatments like chemotherapy for certain rare types of brain tumours.
This work, says Professor Minns, would not have been possible without the grant awarded by Action.
“Until now we’ve had no way to measure precisely the visual fields of young children. This new system has made it possible even for children less than one year of age” - Professor Robert Minns
When Skye was just four years old, a large tumour was found very close to her brain stem.
Prior to this, she had suffered a range of worrying symptoms but doctors had found no cause. An eye test had been suggested, but the optician said she was too small. Then on a family holiday, shortly before her diagnosis, Skye walked straight into a bin beside the pool. “I remember her uncle commenting that it was as if she simply hadn’t seen it,” recalls her mum, Carolann.
Eventually, after a brain scan, she was diagnosed with a type of tumour called juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma.
Following intensive treatment, including emergency surgery, chemotherapy and proton therapy, the tumour has thankfully been stable for the last three years.
However, Skye, now 10, experiences significant problems as a result. She has some learning difficulties and profound hearing loss in her left side.
Her peripheral vision has also been damaged and she was one of the children who took part in Professor Minns’ study.
“She has to turn her head to see to the side of her,” explains Carolann. “She can see only part of her left peripheral vision, and none of her right.”
Taking part in the Action-funded study has helped Skye’s family to better understand what she can and cannot see. “We can help her better at home and explain things to teachers,” says Carolann.
“It’s helped other children understand why she bumps into them sometimes. It has also reassured us that her sight is not deteriorating.
“This research is so important, especially as it could help identify eyesight problems in very small children. It has been fantastic for Skye and for us,” says Carolann.
Action Medical Research is grateful for generous donations made towards this project, including those by The R S Macdonald Charitable Trust, The Hugh Fraser Foundation and The Crerar Hotels Trust.
With your help we are continuing to fund new research to help children with visual problems see the world more clearly.
Thank you for your support.