Keeping an Eye on Mental Health

Study of ‘pupillometry’ said to help gauge brain function

Researchers at the Institute of Living are discovering that the eyes may be a window to unraveling the mysteries of some mental health disorders.

“It’s really true what they say, that you can see a lot by looking into someone’s eyes,” said Jimmy Choi, senior scientist at the IOL’s Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center and Schizophrenia Rehabilitation Program who in the past year led a pioneering treatment study in the field of pupillometry, which involves the measurement of pupil diameter in psychology.

The study, which was published in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, marked the culmination of extensive research into how pupillometry can help with neurofeedback cognitive training in gauging the brain functions of those with schizophrenia or other neurologic disorders.

Choi said the study of pupils in the context of psychiatry has been around for about two decades, but is just beginning to pay off in terms of providing a solid understanding of how the brain can be trained to help overcome symptoms of a disorder.

Advances in technology are making it possible to provide highly accurate scans of the pupil as mental health patients are tested in cognitive functions, Choi said. Devices known as pupillometers can measure the dilation or contraction of the pupils as patients are asked to work on specialized material on computer or tablet screens.

Jimmy Choi, Psy.D., senior scientist at the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center.

If the pupil shows signs of dilation, Choi said, it can be an indication that the patient is experiencing an overload of information and may become frustrated with the test and decide to quit. On the other hand, if the pupils begin to contract, it can be a sign that the material is too easy, and the patient may lose interest, he said.

“Pupillometry really helps us find that sweet spot where the subject is operating at the highest level of cognitive functioning,” he said. By maintaining cognitive focus over a longer period of time, he said, patients can learn to train their brains to overcome symptoms of their disorder. “It’s like practicing at a sport,” he said.