Tara Alvarez, PhD, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology, is doing neuroscience research that could help stroke victims recover their vision but also lead to diagnosis of other visual diseases. 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.
In 2005, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Alvarez an NSF Career Award. Alvarez is using part of her NSF grant to enhance the Vision and Neural Engineering Laboratory at NJIT and to design new courses for undergraduates in NJIT’s expanding biomedical engineering program. In addition, Alvarez has developed 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.
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.
Her research team is the first to quantify oculomotor learning or neuroplasticity from optometric vision therapy (eye exercises) in individuals who have convergence insufficiency. Functional MRI coupled with eye movement recordings show that the amount of oculomotor behavioral change correlates to the amount of functional brain change. Her team has quantified that neuroplasticity occurs by both better use of areas in the brain previously participating in the function and through the recruiting of surrounding areas. This research advances our basic understanding of how the brain can retrain itself when challenged by a visual dysfunction caused by a brain injury. Only when this process is understood can more effective and more personalized treatments be created. This work can also be used to test the efficacy of future treatments.
Recent publications include "Short-Term Predictive Changes in the Dynamics of Vergence Eye Movements," Journal of Vision (2005); "Divergence Eye Movements Are Dependent on Initial Stimulus Position," Vision Research 45, 14 (2005); and “The Proview Phosphene Tonometer Fails to Measure Ocular Pressure Accurately in Clinical Practice,” Ophthalmology (June 2004).
Alvarez received a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and both a master’s and a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Rutgers University, New Brunswick.
Last update: May 2, 2008
Topics: biomedical engineering, neuroscience, human brain, human motor control, human motor learning, oculomotor learning, neuroplasticity, optometric vision therapy, femme