Visual Cognition Project

A team from the Departments of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine recently received $600,000 for a two-year project from PNC Bank/The Edith L. Trees Charitable trust.

Called the “Assessment and Training of Visual Cognition in Special Needs Population with Sensory Deficits,” the interdisciplinary group’s goal is to understand how individuals process visual information by studying children with perceptual deficits and surgeons performing endoscopic surgery.

“The findings will help identify what aspects of the visual environment are most crucial for learning and developing new training methods for patients with deficits as well as aspiring surgeons,” said Carl Snyderman, MD, MBA, Professor of Otolaryngology and Otolaryngology Director of the UPMC Center for Cranial Base Surgery, who is part of the project.

The other two collaborators are Assistant Professors of Ophthalmology J. Patrick Mayo, PhD, and James P. Herman, PhD, visual scientists with expertise in assessing visual pathways in the brain. Dr. Snyderman described his role as providing the connection to patients and surgeons, but his colleagues call him a world expert in skull base surgery and surgical training whose ideas and insights have driven the process from the beginning.

The three were put in touch by José-Alain Sahel, MD, Ophthalmology Department Chair. “It has been a very thought-provoking and exciting collaboration since we’ve met,” Dr. Mayo said. “James and I tend to work in the lab doing basic research, so it is immensely exciting and rewarding to apply decades of research in our field to populations in real-world scenarios. On the flip side, those real-world scenarios are a good test of what we know and understand as visual scientists, and what are the next, most important issues.”

As the grant proposal explains, with up to 80 percent of sensory input to the brain coming from the visual system, and more than half of the brain’s cerebral cortex devoted to visual processing, any visual deficits can lead to learning difficulties. Special needs children have greater challenges because visual processing deficits can exacerbate behaviors that may be masked by their specific diagnosis and therefore remain unaddressed.

The group will work on seven projects total. As described in the grant proposal, Projects 1-3 will study the inter-relationships among visual attention, oculomotor control, and training. Noninvasive neural data will then be collected to assess brain structure and function related to visual perceptual abilities and training-driven visual system changes in Projects 4-7.

One of the team’s goals is to figure out whether a “one size fits all” approach is helpful across a range of populations. “If it is helpful, what sorts of learning and tasks is it helpful for?” Dr. Mayo asked. “If no such solution exists, how do we tailor the learning to the specific populations so that they get the most benefit in the shortest amount of time? What are the best ways to behaviorally measure learning and progress?”