Allegheny Health Network Specialists Explore Use of Novel Eye Tracking Technology to Assess Long Lasting COVID related Neurological Problems

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Doctors at Allegheny Health Network (AHN), led by neurologist Kevin M. Kelly, MD, PhD, are studying use of a novel technology to assess the long term neurological effects of the COVID-19 virus on some patients.

“For months, many of these patients have been advised to ‘just deal with it,’ and that’s not an effective approach,” said Dr. Kelly.

Doctors at Allegheny Health Network (AHN), led by neurologist Kevin M. Kelly, MD, PhD, are studying use of a novel technology to assess the long term neurological effects of the COVID-19 virus on some patients. The research, funded by Neurolign Technologies, is exploring the efficacy of Neurolign’s computerized eye movement tracking goggles for helping to analyze a patient’s oculomotor, vestibular, reaction time and cognitive functions. Dr. Kelly’s colleague, Andrea Synowiec, DO assists in the study by screening potential post-COVID patients at AHN’s Headache Center and referring them to him for further assessment and testing with the Neurolign goggles.

Along with breathing problems, neurologic issues, namely the loss of smell and taste, became a telltale symptom of COVID-19 early on in the pandemic. According to Dr. Kelly, who serves on a diverse panel of multi-disciplinary physician specialists for AHN’s newly established Post-COVID-19 Recovery Clinic, chronic COVID neurologic symptoms are prevalent and wide ranging. A recent study published in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology by Northwestern University found that 85 percent of long-haul patients, or those with symptoms lingering nine months or longer following their illness, reported four or more neurologic symptoms.

“Cognitive dysfunction, or brain fog, is the most common complaint in patients with long-haul COVID-19, but the list is long and continues to grow,” Dr. Kelly said.

In addition to cognitive dysfunction, other common neurologic issues reported by patients include:

  • Headache
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Loss of taste
  • Loss of smell
  • Muscle pain
  • Dizziness
  • Pain
  • Blurred vision
  • Tinnitus or ringing in the ears

Examples of cognitive dysfunction experienced by COVID patients span the spectrum from short-term memory impairment and attention deficit to profound confusion and inability to perform activities of daily living. A case study presented at a workshop on long-term COVID-19 described a 32-year old woman who reported forgetting her partner’s name, how to shower or dress herself. She shared that she would regularly pick up a hot pan, burn herself and then do it again and feels as though she is basically on a “48-hour memory cycle.”

“Studies of COVID-19’s impact on the brain are critically important because the more we learn about the manifestations, the better equipped we are to help our current and future long hauler patients,” said Dr. Kelly. “And that’s why we are excited to be exploring the potential of Neurolign’s technology. The eyes are a window into the workings of the brain, and eye movements are closely linked to cognitive processes.”

The Neurolign I-Portal® software captures, processes and analyzes high speed digital images of the eye, calculating horizontal, vertical, torsional and pupil data using the binocular goggles to track each eye separately. “The data and images produced can indicate how the different neural pathways are functioning, how specific areas of the brain are assembling information,” said Dr. Kelly. The test is non-invasive and the results are practically instantaneous.

For now, the focus is on providing symptomatic treatment to patients experiencing neurologic impairments, such as pain relief for headaches, and validating the symptoms and their impact.

“For months, many of these patients have been advised to ‘just deal with it,’ and that’s not an effective approach,” said Dr. Kelly.

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About the Allegheny Health Network:
Allegheny Health Network (AHN.org), a Highmark Health company, is an integrated healthcare delivery system serving the greater Western Pennsylvania region. The Network is composed of 13 hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, Health + Wellness Pavilions, an employed physician organization, home and community-based health services, a research institute, and a group purchasing organization. The Network provides patients with access to a complete spectrum of advanced medical services, including nationally recognized programs for primary and emergency care, trauma care, cardiovascular disease, organ transplantation, cancer care, orthopedic surgery, neurology and neurosurgery, women’s health, diabetes, autoimmune disease and more. AHN employs approximately 21,000 people, has more than 2,500 physicians on its medical staff and serves as a clinical campus for Drexel University College of Medicine and the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.

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JoAnne Clobus
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