Postdoc Highlights the Eye-Brain Connection

October 3, 2017

Dr. Sheehy smiling, head and shoulders

A thoughtful and well-crafted performance earned Christy K. Sheehy, PhD, the People’s Choice Award and Second Place campuswide in the annual UCSF Postdoc Slam. This unconventional competition challenges postdoctoral research fellows to present compelling presentations in lay language in three minutes or less! Affiliated with the Department of Ophthalmology and the Department of Neurology, Dr. Sheehy serves in the laboratory of neuro-ophthalmologist Ari Green, MD, medical director of the UCSF Multiple Sclerosis Center.

“I love teaching and sharing my passion for research with others, so this event was the perfect opportunity to do just that,” says Dr. Sheehy. Her Tracking Scanning Laser Ophthalmoscope can assess brain health in a way that is far less expensive and easier than current brain imaging methods. Here is the text of her award-winning slam:

“Many people say that the eyes are the window to the soul. A quick glance, a longing gaze, an eye roll – you can actually learn quite a lot about a person by just looking into their eyes. But imagine instead that you traveled through all the different layers of the eye to the very back surface. And when you sat on the back of the eye and you looked around at its structure and how it’s moving – YOU have the power to tell someone the exact state of their neurological health. Pretty crazy, right? But, actually it’s not! You see the very back of the eye is actually the front of the brain.

The brain is an extremely complex and amazing organ. It’s a lot like our mothers – it tells us exactly what to do and when, regardless of the time of day or how old we are. But imaging the brain and actually assessing its function is extremely difficult and really expensive. And in neurology, many times we’re left asking patients how they’re feeling and reporting their symptoms. Sometimes it’s as vague as “something doesn’t feel quite right,” and then we’re left to determine what went wrong. Imagine waiting for a heart disease patient until after they’ve had a stroke or heart attack until we start figuring out what’s going wrong. It’s not the right order. So, in order for us to treat neurological disease, we need to start at the earliest time point – to stop disease directly in its tracks. Neurological tools really need to catch up, and that’s where my project comes in.

I have designed and built one of the world’s most sensitive eye trackers, called the Tracking Scanning Laser Ophthalmoscope, and we use it to image patients with multiple sclerosis. Very simply, the machine uses a bunch of mirrors and lenses to send light directly into the back of the eye. Light is then reflected back out and onto a camera. We then watch how the eye moves in extremely high resolution on the order of 1 micron, or roughly 1/100 the size of a human hair. Grasp a single strand of your hair (if you have any, if not – politely ask a neighbor) and imagine something 100x small than that.

So why eye-tracking for multiple sclerosis? Well, the parts of the brain that are used for motor movement and motor planning are usually the first affected in this disease. So let’s look at the smallest movement that the body is even capable of making – that of the eye – and let’s start there. Using neurological tools that are looking at the level of single cells in the eye… now that’s the type of neurological tool that could make the difference. Thank you.”