A young professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is doing research that could help stroke victims recover their vision.
“When people have strokes, we think of their losing limb mobility but a similar loss can affect the eye muscles, causing what is known as visual field neglect,” said Tara Alvarez, Ph.D., of Andover Township, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at NJIT. “A person with visual field neglect who looks at a clock may only see the numbers on one side of the clock, such as one through six. To this person, the rest of the clock does not exist. A better understanding of motor control can give these people the tools to re-learn the lost visual skill.”
Alvarez’s neuroscience research will not only help stroke victims but also lead to diagnosis of other visual diseases. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded Alvarez an NSF Career award. She will receive the $400,000 grant over five years. The prestigious career award recognizes teacher-scholars most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.
The journal Vision Research will publish her research, “Divergence Eye Movements are Dependent on Initial Stimulus Position,” in an upcoming 2005 issue.
Alvarez seeks to understand how the brain learns when visually locating objects in three-dimensional (3D) space. Understanding the learning strategies that the human brain uses to control eye movement will also yield insight into the general problem of motor learning. Her research will lead to a better understanding of basic motor control and also discover how dysfunctions in the eyes’ three-dimensional tracking system affect motor learning. Motor learning refers to the way the brain learns by altering the control of human movement.
Alvarez’s research will help people with a visual problem called convergence insufficiency, or the inability to easily fixate the eyes on a near target. A person with convergence insufficiency cannot read or look at a computer screen for more than twenty minutes without getting headaches as well as blurred and double vision. The condition has also been linked to learning disabilities. And as societies become more dependent on prolonged and close-up visual tasks such as computer use, there will be more of a need to help people with such vision problems. Alvarez’s research can lead to visual therapies and exercises that will help these people focus and read for longer periods.
Alvarez will use new technologies to conduct vision experiments on patients. One such technology is a signal processing technique known as Independent Component Analysis (ICA). The ICA technique will reveal the components of the eyes’ depth control system.
She’ll also use a powerful new tool known as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to study the locations of the brain used to control and change eye movements. Patients will be given visual tasks that call upon certain parts of the brain; the two new tools will illustrate which parts of the brain are used for each task.
Alvarez will use part of her NSF grant to enhance the Vision and Neural Engineering Laboratory at NJIT. She’ll also design new courses for undergraduates in NJIT’s expanding biomedical engineering program. She is also developing a one-week course for NJIT’s pre-college FEMME program, which teaches grade-school girls, most of whom are minorities, the fundamentals of science, technology and pre-engineering concepts.
NJIT is not the only school that will benefit from Alvarez’s NSF-sponsored research. She is developing a program to instruct local high-school teachers in the concepts of biomedical engineering. She hopes the training will help increase the number of minorities and women in the field of engineering.
Alvarez has published ten papers including “The Proview Phosphene Tonometer Fails to Measure Ocular Pressure Accurately in Clinical Practice,” in the June 2004 issue of Ophthalmology.
She received a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and both a master’s and a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Rutgers University, New Brunswick.