“Attention is something everybody needs,” says Dr. Jamshid Ghajar. Whether that’s memory or processing, your brain needs attention to “deal with the outside world.” When there’s an impairment – commonly lack of sleep, but head injury, ADHD, the autism spectrum, and dementia would also qualify – we can’t process as well.

Dr. Ghajar, a board-certified neurosurgeon who founded the Brain Trauma Foundation and the Stanford Brain Performance Center, sees a future where we do away with these labels and instead focus on what area of attention needs improvement. His company NeuroSync created the Eye-Sync device, a set of AR/VR goggles that measure attention through a 30-second eye tracking test with results in one minute. By measuring an abnormal eye movement, which can be a biomarker for disease and other neurologic conditions, a physician can assess the areas of impairment and provide the appropriate therapies and training to improve it.

“The function of attention is to select sensory information in space and time and synchronize it with cognitive or motor functions,” says Dr. Ghajar. If you want to hit a tennis ball, for example, you have to see the moving ball before you swing your racquet. “The cerebellum coordinates all these functions after much practice which involves prediction – when the ball will be in the hit location at a certain time,” explains Dr. Ghajar.

“Prediction timing is the next big frontier.”

“Prediction timing is the next big frontier,” he says of the field of neuroscience. “A lot of pathology comes out of poor timing in development, injury, or degeneration.” By learning how the brain deals with the present moment, you can solve issues with attention, learning, and performance.

The Eye-Sync goggles measure eye movements via the fovea, a small area in your eye where everything is focused (this area is the size of your thumbnail when you look at it with your arm outstretched – if you do this, everything else around your thumbnail will be blurry). “The job of the body is to have the image consistently on the fovea,” explains Dr. Ghajar. If you are trying to follow a moving object – a car, a tennis ball – or if you are looking at something while you are in motion, “you’re actually predicting where your body is going to be and move your eyes so you can keep the target on the fovea.”

The Eye-Sync goggles use a circle moving at a set speed to measure the movements of each eye. Most people will do very well on this test “because the brain is a prediction machine,” says Dr. Ghajar. “But if your timing is off or your spatial predictions are off, you won’t be able to do very well.”

When an impairment is detected, whether it’s spatial or timing-related, therapy is tailored to normalize attention function. For example, if there’s a left-sided attention problem, feedback training using the eye position would be used either manually or with the AR/VR goggles. Improvements typically take 4-6 weeks with daily training.

Variance in eye-target synchronization can signal impairment. Image courtesy of NeuroSync.

Variance in eye-target synchronization can signal impairment. Image courtesy of NeuroSync.

Dr. Ghajar envisions a world where the Eye-Sync goggles might be used, for example, on the sidelines of a football game. Instead of using any of the 32 definitions for concussion (which has recently led to serious injury in the game), a practitioner should simply ask, “Are you ready to play football?” Using the Eye-Sync goggles, they might measure an abnormal eye movement, signaling that the player is fatigued, or doesn’t have enough visual attention or balance to play the game. Such measurements could lead to an injury diagnosis, prevent further injury, and promote better recovery. A label of concussion would be less relevant than a measurement that the player needs to get their balance back.

A similar notion could be applied to kids who are having trouble reading. “It’s an attention problem,” says Dr. Ghajar. “You can train these kids to improve their timing. They become more centered, more confident, and they can have a lot more choices in life than what they had before.”