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The eye test that maps your brain

27 November 2018

Future Leaders in Neuroscience and Mental Health Research is an initiative providing seed-corn funding to early career researchers at Cardiff University. Donations to this cause are enabling Cardiff researchers like Dr Kathryn Peall to measure eye movements that will lead her to the part of the brain involved in a disorder called dystonia.

Dystonia is a little known, and not fully understood condition. Symptoms include painful, prolonged muscle contractions, as well as abnormal movement and tremors. For Dr Kathryn Peall, that lack of understanding is a major motivator:

“As a clinician, I find myself apologising to patients for the limited knowledge surrounding dystonia. I diagnose it, but at the moment treatments target symptoms, not the neurological root of the problem. We need to step up and do something.”

When we visit her clinic, her research seems strangely familiar considering it’s looking for a hidden away part of the brain that causes this neurological disorder. In fact, it resembles a fairly standard eye test.

“Thanks to Future Leaders funding, I am tracking subtle eye movements in patients with dystonia, using these movements to locate the source of dystonia in the brain. This is a huge stepping stone into data on how the disease works and how we can treat it.”

Talking to dystonia patients who are participating in her research, it’s clear that this is not just a data gathering exercise. For Rhiannon Gray, her diagnosis came about by chance:

“When I was 35 and pregnant with my third child I started to have a tremor down my left arm. The GP couldn’t find a cause or diagnosis, and my physiotherapist couldn’t figure out the source of the pain either. It just so happened that my physio met a neurologist who was interested in my case and who was able to diagnose me with dystonia within five minutes.”

Being diagnosed with dystonia not only allowed her to manage her symptoms(medications like botox and Parkinson’s drugs are currently used) but it also prompted her to think about other sufferers in her family.

“I am the third generation in my family who suffers with this. My grandfather had motor neurone disease and my mother has suffered from a tremor since her 30s. I’m very aware that any of my children might also have it.”

“Being part of Dr Peall’s research means that I’m doing what I can for my children and their children, to find better treatments and even cures.”

That link to patients, and the impact on their lives and families is not lost on Dr Peall.

“When patients come long distances to participate in my research, desperate to understand more about what is happening to them, I am motivated by the impact that this project will have on real lives.”

And, thanks to the support of donors, Dr Peal firmly believes there is real hope for this research to progress.:

“Because of the Future Leaders donations, we’ve secured further funding to pursue this lead. We want to track sleep data, and we want to use brain imaging to see if our findings correlate with brain activity.”

“I believe that in my lifetime we will have better treatment for dystonia”

You can support researchers like Dr Kathryn Peall by giving to Cardiff University, and indicating you want your donation to go towards neuroscience and mental health