As Dr. Deborah Zelinsky takes the helm of the Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics (SMBT) to serve as the President for the 2023-2024 cycle, the two-decade-old organization comes under the nurturing vision of an expert with three decades of research experience in the connection between the eyes and brain function.
Zelinsky tells the California Business Journal how she plans to translate her optometric expertise into reaching her goals while heading the SBMT to improve patient care—through the eyes.
Zelinsky’s research into the connection of the eyes and the brain spans three decades and delivers insurmountable value to the healthcare industry. And it all started with a rather peculiar experience while she was working as an optometrist early in her career.
“When I was a new, 26-year-old optometrist, a woman came into my practice. She was legally blind and very depressed and meek. I started putting lenses and prisms in front of her eyes,” Zelinsky tells the California Business Journal. However, something unexpected happened when she arrived at a prism position that angled light to the patient’s eyes differently.
“All of a sudden, she stood up and started talking to her husband, telling him about plans for the night; what they should do, where they should go. It was as if a completely different person had been in my exam chair. Her personality changed in an instant,” Zelinsky says.
Stunned by the reaction, Zelinsky alternated between prisms, back and forth, retriggering the personality change from meek to assertive and back again. Zelinsky’s intrigue was piqued—for life.
As she searched for the reason for this peculiar experience and decades of research unfolded, the neuroscience community discovered that eyes send not only visual information to the brain. They also send non-visual information, too, about which, at this point, we understand little. However, thanks to Zelinsky’s calling, today we know for certain that eyes’ function goes beyond seeing—and industry-disrupting, game-changing revelation.
However, optometrists’ practices and treatment approaches must not be uprooted. “It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that regular eye doctors must revise how they’ve done their job for the past decades. Their methods have worked and still work for the general public,” she says. But her research, once entering multidisciplinary fields, may deliver ample advantage to help patients who have brain disruptions.
Such revolutionary findings and research experience contribute to the SBMT’s work of promoting public welfare and improving patient care by utilizing new technologies and therapies. The organization, founded in 2004, has doubled down on excellence in education and scientific discovery, promoting global multidisciplinary collaboration with government agencies, patient advocacy groups, educational institutions, industry and philanthropic organizations. All this devotion aimed at a single objective: to improve the quality of care and life of patients. They accomplish this by collaboration among many fields, each breaking boundaries in healthcare with pioneering work.
Dr. Zelinsky has three main aims as the incumbent President of SBMT. Firstly, she will work toward increasing the general understanding of retinal processing’s importance and impact on how people respond to environmental changes. “One of the things I want to do as president of SBMT is raise awareness of how critically important retinal processing is to many different disciplines,” she says.
The more professionals understand retinal processing and its connection and functionality concerning the brain, the better they can map the neural organ to make rehabilitation more efficient and customized for patients with cerebral injuries. This will give immense value to patients’ lives by mitigating symptoms and potentially allowing them to return to work after an injury.
Secondly, Zelinsky will work on creating more scientific buzz around the role of non-image-forming retinal pathways, a landmark realization at the core of her research, which means non-eyesight-related information that travels from the eyes further into the brain. But what does this mean exactly? The Mind-Eye Institute that she founded in 1992 works with shifting sound location, and thus listening ability, by using eyeglasses. In addition to patients with brain injuries, patients with autonomic dysfunctions and genetic disorders can also have a more extensive assessment battery of eye tests to encompass more than eyesight, eye health and eye movement. Sensory integration and visual perceptual skills among others can be evaluated to account for the non-eyesight retinal pathways influencing brain activity.
“The retina in our eyes is an extension of the brain—it’s part of the brain tissue. Therefore, when we put eyeglasses on, we’re actually altering brain function,” Dr. Zelinsky tells the CBJ. Beyond helping people see better, i.e. sharper and farther, eyeglasses can in fact affect systemic biometrics, such as blood pressure or glucose levels. This is what non-eyesight-related information means and the potential gains go further. There is an emerging field called oculomics which addresses using the eye as a biomarker for systemic diseases and various mental health disorders.
“Research has shown that retinal thinning reflects similar degeneration occurring in the brain in patients with Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and Parkinson’s disease,” Dr. Zelinsky says. Dysfunction appears in the inner retinal layers after a brain injury. This discovery opens a venue for remedial care to help patients in revolutionary ways.
“Trained eye care professionals can collaborate with neurologists, cardiologists, endocrinologists, psychiatrists, rehabilitation specialists, and other health experts to help modulate brain activity to better support patients in their journey to return to themselves or remedying their symptoms,” she adds.
Thanks to her research unveiling that the eyes’ significance goes beyond seeing clearly, the SBMT President underlines the importance of professionals adopting a big-picture, interdisciplinary approach to the connection of the eyes and brain function. The interdisciplinarity of fields is an emerging proposition in healthcare that traditionally considered experts specializing in one organ and related functions. Today, medical experts increasingly realize the benefits and need for synergy among separate specializations to offer better patient care and invent new treatments.
And thirdly, as a direct result of the preceding two pillars, Zelinsky aims to collaborate with lawmakers in Congress to modify current Medicare codes and standards of optometric care. Some SBMT members are headed to Congress in a few weeks on October 19th for their tenth annual Brain Mapping Briefing. This is the first time SBMT is back since the pandemic. Zelinsky participated in the ninth annual day discussing, “From Eye Exam to Brain Exam: How Optometry Field Should Adapt to Advances in Brain Mapping” Why is this important?
“Proper insurance coverage is indispensable for the comprehensive assessment and testing of image-forming (eyesight-related information) and non-image-forming (non-eyesight-related information) pathways. This would contribute toward our members’ goal: to help restore brain-injured, stroke, and other neurologically disrupted patients to restore their quality of life,” Zelinsky says.
This last pillar rests on a humane, compassionate premise. Think of children being tested before kindergarten. Their eyes and ears are each fine, but the integration of the visual and auditory processing systems is not assessed. They are put into schoolrooms and told to simultaneously listen and watch the teacher and connect visual symbols in writing with auditory sounds in order to read. Many children need help linking auditory with visual space via those non-eyesight-related retinal pathways. Yet, they are placed into special education and lose self-esteem. Health care must prioritize restoring patients’ self-respect and self-worth, contributing to a happier life on an individual level. Nevertheless, this social approach also comes with economic gains: In the long run, it saves government spending on health care.
Good health is a direct enabler of positive family and community life, which immediately trickles down to individuals contributing to society more positively. The success of a nation lies in the well-being of its citizens and residents, for which we need more research and more support from businesses—especially in funding research. Such a supportive environment shall serve as the cornerstone for thriving research, which approach is non-negotiable for a more sustainable, better future.
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