Kessler Foundation awarded federal grant to study virtual reality immersive technology for visual neglect in traumatic brain injury

Peii Chen, PhD, leads study aimed at restoring functional vision among veterans and service members with head trauma-related visual dysfunction

East Hanover, NJ – January 13, 2022 – Peii (Peggy) Chen, PhD, senior research scientist in the Center for Stroke Rehabilitation Research at Kessler Foundation, has been awarded a $376,109 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army Medical Research & Development Command, Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP), Vision Research Program. This Investigator-Initiated Research Award funds a two-year study titled, “A Virtual Reality (VR) Oculomotor Exercise for Restoring Functional Vision after Head Trauma.”

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) can have significant impact on vision, causing impaired visual attention (also known as visual neglect) even when there is no injury to the eye. Individuals with visual neglect have lost the ability to explore the full extent of their surroundings. They have difficulty reading, locating personal belongings, finding their way to destinations, and many other daily activities. Visual neglect is caused by disconnected neural networks and has been studied extensively in stroke but remains largely unexplored in other types of brain injury.  

Citing the lack of evidence-based treatments for visual neglect after TBI, Dr. Chen explained, “Our study will fill this knowledge gap by exploring visual neglect in TBI and developing a new treatment modality.”

The project is at the forefront of neurorehabilitation research using immersive virtual reality (VR) technology developed with the services provided by Virtualware, an award-winning VR technology company based in Spain. The to-be-developed treatment is an intensive, game-like rehabilitation program leveraging a combination of VR and eye-tracking technologies to implement an oculomotor exercise protocol based on smooth eye pursuit.

Smooth eye pursuit exercise is an evidence-based treatment that improves patients’ ability to move their eyes toward the neglected side of space and voluntarily pay attention to the entire workspace relevant to a given task. This ability is fundamental to spatial explorations that are required in learning, reading, and way finding. Conventionally, smooth eye pursuit exercise for treating visual neglect requires intensive and close supervision from therapists. VR technology combined with eye tracking can reduce therapist burden. Research participants will experience a VR session of smooth eye pursuit exercise and share their feedback. The study will reveal the feasibility and benefits of applying new technologies to rehabilitative treatment activities.

Research participants will also undergo functional and structural neuroimaging studies of the brain. The study outcomes will broaden the understanding of spatial processing and visual cognition as functions of brain connectivity and advance the development of treatments targeting head trauma-related visual dysfunction.

“Knowledge gained from this clinical study will advance patient care by identifying the neural basis of visual neglect due to TBI at rest and during smooth pursuit eye exercise,” said Dr. Chen. “Reaching our goals will lead to improved visual health and quality of life for civilians, as well as active-duty military and veterans with trauma-related visual dysfunction.”  

Funding: Department of Defense, U.S. Army Medical Research & Development Command (USAMRDC), Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP), Vision Research Program under award # W81XWH-21-1-0746. 

For information on ongoing rehabilitation research studies at Kessler Foundation, contact: [email protected].

About Kessler Foundation

Kessler Foundation, a major nonprofit organization in the field of disability, is a global leader in rehabilitation research that seeks to improve cognition, mobility, and long-term outcomes, including employment, for people with neurological disabilities caused by diseases and injuries of the brain and spinal cord. Kessler Foundation leads the nation in funding innovative programs that expand opportunities for employment for people with disabilities.

For more information, contact:
Deb Hauss, [email protected]
Carolann Murphy, [email protected]

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