Rare camera system on trial at Whitman; will be used in Parkinson’s research

Tom Knight is asking his students to open their eyes. Literally.

Through a 2010 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, the assistant biology professor has procured a unique research tool called the “EyeSeeCam” (with “GazeCam”), which he and some of his students will utilize this summer as they try to break ground in the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease.

“There are only three of these systems in the world,” Knight said. “And ours is the only one in the world now located outside of Munich, Germany.”

The Murdock grant awarded to Knight totaled $66,000. Whitman matched the grant at $19,500. The EyeSeeCam, which records what the eyes of its user actually see, cost $33,000.
Tom Knight, assistant professor of biology

“We could measure eye movements before, but not eye and head movement coordination with a device that is lightweight and completely portable. We received the EyeSeeCam last July and have completed only initial experiments, but we’re still trying it out to see how it works in natural environments,” Knight said while observing his student, Peter Osseward ’12 playing speed chess with Jeremy Norden ’12. Osseward set up the EyeSeeCam to record data and video measuring how Norden’s eyes moved during the games.

The EyeSeeCam is worn on the head. One camera records the scene in front of the user. But what makes this camera system special is that it also has a “GazeCam,” an eye-movement driven video camera that records what the eyes are seeing by following a user’s eyes as they dart back and forth to focus on various objects. The lag time for the camera is only 10 milliseconds.

“This is cool,” said Norden, the subject of this brief experiment, and a chess aficionado. “I can see my gaze was more focused on my opponent’s pieces than my own,” he realized, after reviewing the GazeCam video playback from his three-minute chess match.

The Murdock Trust looks for projects that have as a main objective the acquisition of new knowledge, according to the Murdock Web site. The training of students in conducting research is another important consideration. Knight’s students are deeply involved in his work, and this summer they will use the camera system for more than analyzing a chess match.

The plan is for Knight and his student Whitney Griggs ’13 to work with patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, a neurological disorder that affects at least 500,000 people in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The research will be funded by a Perry Summer Research Award, a Whitman internal grant program for faculty/student collaborative research.

Research suggests that retraining Parkinson’s patients on how to follow objects with their eyes may compensate for some of the deficits caused by the disease, such as difficulties walking. The EyeSeeCam can monitor how these patients track targets, such as LED lights on a wall, and doctors can use the results to retrain their patients’ eye movements.

According to Knight, the camera system might also help doctors diagnose Parkinson’s before the debilitating disease progresses.

“The camera system can measure if eye and head movements are starting to slow,” which could portend the onset of the disease, rather than having to wait until a patient shows major signs, such as difficulty walking or reaching for a cup, Knight said.

“Having this rare tool puts Whitman on par with big research groups. We can make a major impact on a serious disease from an undergraduate-only institution like Whitman,” Knight said.

But before Knight’s students begin working with Parkinson’s patients, they will continue testing the capabilities of the EyeSeeCam.

Moving on from experimenting with multiple games of speed chess, Osseward and Norden are eager to use the system in a game of ultimate Frisbee®.

“Maybe,” Knight said. “It will have to be a gentle game of Frisbee®. The camera is fragile. And expensive.”


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