In a recent panel put on by the Initiative on Stress, Trauma, and Resilience (STAR) as a part of their STAR Research Series, three researchers presented their expertise on different elements of eye tracking as a digital health research tool. These three investigators focused on research questions that can be answered by eye tracking technology as well as the practical elements of design and implementation. The three panelists gave distinct perspectives on the tactic, and emphasized the importance of digital development in future trauma and stress research.
The first panelist, Dr. Tanja Jovanovic, is a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences and a Chair for PTSD Neurobiology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Her research focus is identifying the biomarkers of risk for trauma-related psychopathology, specifically, fear-potentiated startle. She described the setup and use of eye tracking to study the eyeblink component of the startle reflex. Although the blink of an eye may seem like a small element of the human fear response, Dr. Jovanovic’s research has found that this startle paradigm is useful for investigating maladaptive patterns of attention to emotional stimuli present in PTSD. The severity of maladaptive fear and startle responses in PTSD patients impact severity of psychological outcomes.
The second panelist, Dr. Yara Mekawi, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and head of the Challenging Ongoing Legacies of Racism (COLOR) Lab. Her talk focused on utilizing eye tracking to evaluate anticipatory race-related fear and internalized psychopathology in BIPOC. Her research observes eye tracking as it relates to enhanced attention toward threat, specifically associating this increased attention to potential race-based discrimination and aggression with subsequent negative affect and psychopathology in racial and ethnic minorities. Her work sheds light on the very real neurophysiological effects of racial discrimination and how they can be measured digitally.
The third panelist, Dr. Michael Armey, is an Associate Professor in the Psychosocial Research Program at Butler Hospital with a faculty appointment in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. His work applies eye tracking technology to suicide risk evaluation. His team found that eye movements in response to certain images are significantly associated with risk for suicide attempts up to six months later. This particular project, involving eye tracking of participants shown images differentially related to suicide risk, showed the utility of eye tracking in detecting risks that are either subconscious or undisclosed (known as suicide specific implicit cognitions).
Each of the aforementioned panelists utilizes eye tracking technology to detect forms of attention bias, whether that be to an emotional stimulus, anticipatory race-related fear, or to an indicator of suicidal ideation. This research panel displayed the utility of eye tracking as a digital health tool at all levels of prevention and intervention: detecting subconscious risk factors and mitigating them to prevent harm and increasing understanding of the neurophysiological effects of past harm and how to treat them. The major strength of this technology is the breadth of stimuli it can be used to evaluate: from a movie jump-scare to a particularly personal traumatic memory, eye tracking has the potential to quantify reflexive reaction and correlate it with mental health outcomes.