Ask three neurologists if someone has a concussion, says Rosina Samadani ’89, SM ’92, and you’ll get four different opinions. A concussion, typically caused by a blow to the head, is an injury that temporarily impairs
brain function. But the damage usually doesn’t show up on brain
scans—and with no clinical standard, or even an agreed-upon
symptom checklist, diagnosis comes down to a judgment call
based on hard-to-assess things like how nauseated or drowsy
someone feels. Samadani and her sister, Uzma Samadani, an
associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota, want to change that.
About seven years ago, Uzma was trying to determine whether
Eyeball and pupil movement are controlled by three pairs of
severely brain-injured patients were improving, so she developed
an eye-tracking device to see if they could follow a moving video
on a screen. The practice of assessing eye movement to detect
brain injury dates back thousands of years, but it largely died
out with the advent of radiology and CT scanning. “As soon as
radiology came along and you had these beautiful pictures of the
brain,” Uzma says, “people stopped relying so much on looking
at physical eye movements.”
As she evaluated the data gathered by her device, she realized
it was allowing her to detect not only the patients’ tracking abil-
ity but also restrictions in their eyes’ range of motion. It dawned
on her that these restrictions indicated problems with specific
nerve pathways, meaning she had found a way to measure—and
possibly locate—brain injury.
cranial nerves that emerge from the brain stem and extend for-
Eye-tracking technology could help take the
guesswork out of diagnosing brain injuries.
by Robin Kazmier, SM ’ 17
ward, one nerve along each side of the brain, to connect with the
eye muscles. Pressure on those nerves slows their activity. Since
each cranial nerve pair governs different aspects of eye movement,
Uzma reasoned, eye-tracking data could reveal which nerves are
affected by pressure or damage in the brain, and even point to the
site of an injury. For example, if movement is impaired in both
eyes but the eyes are coordinated, that likely means the injury is
in the brain stem, which would affect both sides of the nerve pair.
If only one eye is affected, that suggests the injury is in a section
of nerve that has already emerged from the brain stem.
Uzma planned to make the technology available free online,
but she realized that few facilities would have the resources to
properly set it up. So she founded Oculogica in 2013 to sell it in
ready-to-use form. She got input on starting the business from
Rosina, who’d studied mechanical engineering at MIT, earned a
PhD in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University,
and had 18 years of experience in the medical-device industry as
a health-care consultant and founder of two startups. The sisters
had never imagined they would collaborate professionally, but
Uzma thought Rosina had the perfect skill set for Oculogica; she
hired her as CEO in 2015.
The company’s tabletop eye-tracking device, a machine called
EyeBox, sends a small video clockwise around the perimeter of
a rectangular screen for 220 seconds. (The test videos, which
include a Shakira music video, were carefully vetted to meet a
list of about a dozen criteria; for example, they can’t have flash-
Rosina Samadani ’89, SM ’92 (left), is CEO of Oculogica, which her sister, Uzma, founded.