A test described by its inventors as “a step change in psychiatry” has been named as one of Scotland’s most significant innovations.
The test, which identifies unusual eye movements linked with major psychiatric disorders, was developed by researchers from the University of Aberdeen and has won the 2013 Converge Challenge.
The idea that abnormal eye movements could be associated with conditions like schizophrenia dates back more than a hundred years.
In a 1908 paper, Yale University psychiatrist Allen Ross Diefendorf and Raymond Dodge, a psychologist at Wesleyan University, reported that people with psychotic symptoms were unable to smoothly track slowly moving objects. Their gaze tended to lag behind the object and then catch up with it by making rapid skips called saccades.
The Aberdeen study is one of the few since then to look at the phenomenon in detail. The team used head-mounted equipment that could measure the direction of a subject’s gaze to an accuracy of a hundredth of a degree to test how well people were able to maintain their gaze on a fixed target 70cm away, or track it as it moved around a 48cm screen.
A series of exercises were carried out by a group of 88 people who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and the same number of volunteer control subjects.
The differences in performance were clear enough, the researchers concluded in a paper published in Biological Psychiatry last year, to suggest that even simple tests taking a few minutes in a clinic have considerable power to identify signs of psychiatric disorder that can supplement other symptom-based diagnoses.
Technology entrepreneur Madhu Nair, who delivered the final pitch for the team at the awards, said: “Our simple eye-movement tests can recognise schizophrenia and other major psychiatric disorders with better than 95 per cent accuracy and within 30 minutes – a step change for psychiatry.”
As well as helping to accurately diagnose schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression more quickly, meaning patients receive appropriate treatment sooner, the test may also have the potential to identify individuals who are at risk of developing mental health problems before they arise, it is claimed.
One of the first steps in bringing a commercial product to market was top place in the 2013 Converge Challenge Awards, with a prize worth £60,000 in cash and business support. The competition, one of the biggest of its kind outside the US, was open to all Scottish universities and research institutes.
The Aberdeen researchers plan to use the cash element to leverage further matched funding and form a company to bring a product to market.
Dr Philip Benson, a senior lecturer at Aberdeen’s School of Psychology and one of the academics behind the test, says that delivering an accurate and timely diagnosis remains one of the most pressing responsibilities of modern psychiatry in the absence of any objective diagnostic tests that can routinely validate decisions made by clinicians.
“The win is a testament to the strength of our business proposition and this enables us to move forward quickly with the University to commercialise the eye-movement test through a new company,” he added.
Nair added that taking part was central to the process of preparing a business plan to present to potential investors. “The need is significant with one in five adults suffering from some form of mental ill health during their lifetime and 5 per cent developing major psychiatric disorders. It is the largest cause of disability worldwide costing a staggering US$2.5 trillion per annum.”