Visionary Science: A New Perspective on Visual Rehabilitation

The World Health Organization estimated in 2010 that there were 285 million people globally with visual impairment, 39 million of whom were blind and 246 million with “low vision.” Millions more suffer from under-recognized and undertreated visuomotor deficits after a stroke or traumatic brain injury (TBI). Yet, limited progress has been made to date in the field of evidence-based visual rehabilitation.

Enter the pioneering efforts of the Visuomotor Integration Laboratory (VMIL) at Rusk. Created via a research fellowship from the Clinical and Translational Science Institute of NYU Langone Medical Center, the VMIL is studying the interaction between the neural codes that plan eye and arm movements so that functional visual rehabilitation programs can be designed.

The program’s initial research focuses on eye movement planning strategies and upper-extremity reaching movement planning strategies, which together may play a critical role in visuomotor integration or, simply stated, eyehand coordination.

A studied understanding of how eye and arm movements are processed may also aid in motor learning and in the recovery of upper-extremity function in stroke patients. These efforts will be significantly aided by a recent grant award from the National Institute of Aging for continued research in the area of eyehand coordination in elderly stroke victims. The VMIL was launched by associate research scientist John-Ross Rizzo, MD, who first became passionate about functional visual rehabilitation when he was diagnosed with a recessive disease of the retina and choroid fifteen years ago. Rizzo, in league with Michael Landy, PhD, professor of psychology and neural science and postdoctoral fellow Todd Hudson, both at NYU’s Center for Neural Science, has already been encouraged by the team’s initial findings. Motor planning systems revealed by their early research may help elucidate deficits in stroke patients with more specificity and accuracy.

As the VMIL’s studies of motor planning in eye movements and reaching movements continue, the team hopes further discoveries will enable them to design new, highly individualized rehabilitation regimens for patients. Ultimately, a clear understanding of the interrelationship between eye and arm movements could lead to developments such as video games designed to train eye-hand coordination. With the aid of telerehabilitation applications, visually and/or motorically impaired patients may be able to utilize their residual resources to optimize function and recovery.

At VMIL, understanding how the eye is integrated with the arm represents an unprecedented step forward in the vastly underserved field of physiatric visual rehabilitation—and promise for the functional independence of the visually, motorically, or visuomotorically impaired.

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