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Speech Disorders: How Neuromodulation Through the Eyes May Offer New Answers

Mind-Eye Institute Founder Delivers Message to Nonspeaking Patients

The eye may eventually prove the portal through which health professionals begin making beneficial changes to brain function, enabling nonspeaking patients and others with speech disorders to communicate more effectively.

That was the message Deborah Zelinsky, OD delivered recently to representatives of the International Association for Spelling as Communication, an organization devoted to helping people with complex communicative and sensory-motor disorders, including apraxia, which can interfere with the brain pathways necessary to produce speech; aphasia caused by damage to language areas of the brain; and echolalia – tendency to repeat words and phrases over and over.

Role of Retina and Neuromodulation in Speech Disorders

“Researchers are finding that the retina, which is composed of brain tissue, plays a critical role in the central nervous system. Environmental feedback signals (in the form of light) enter the retina and convert into electrical signals, which propagate through neurons and interact with key brain structures. These retinal signals affect not only the visual cortex but other, significant regions of the brain as well, linking with structures like the limbic system, the cerebellum, hypothalamus, and brainstem,” Dr. Zelinsky explained during her presentation, held in Washington, D.C.

“The inability to verbally communicate has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence,” she told Association members. “Speech disorders are linked to neurological impairments, many of which have frustrated treatment efforts for years. But advancements in science indicate neuromodulation – what the International Neuromodulation Society calls the process of ‘harvesting the power of electrical impulses in the human body for therapeutic benefit’ – may be an improved method for addressing neurological abnormalities,” Dr. Zelinsky said.

About the Mind-Eye Institute

The Mind-Eye Institute is an optometric practice, internationally known for its use of highly individualized, therapeutic eyeglasses and other advanced optometric tools to manipulate the amount, angle, and intensity of light passing through the retina. Such manipulation can create changes in the brain function of patients struggling with the symptoms of traumatic head injury, concussion, stroke, and neurological disorders, including brain dysfunctions affecting speech and communication.

Noninvasive retinal stimulation also has proven effective in building undeveloped visual processing skills in children – and adults – with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other learning difficulties.

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“The inability to verbally communicate has nothing to do with a person's intelligence."

“Optical interventions, such as highly individualized eyeglass lenses, can selectively stimulate retinal activity, thereby influencing retinal processing and brain function and re-integrating a person’s sensory inputs, especially visual and auditory, explained Dr. Zelinsky, founder and research director of the Mind-Eye Institute and a globally recognized expert on retinal processing.

The Mind-Eye team has long been studying the retina’s role in integrating various sensory maps, including eye-ear coordination, to process surrounding space and achieve proper spatial awareness. This synchronization of perceived auditory and visual space with proprioceptors – mechanosensory neurons found in muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints -- optimizes a person’s overall performance, including movement, executive functioning, memory, and the sequencing of brain functions required for effective communication skills.

Effective Communication Requires Sensory Balance

Effective communication depends on a series of coordinated sensory inputs from the right and the left, such as body language and facial expression (detected by the eyes) and tone of voice and choice of words (detected by the ears), Dr. Zelinsky stated. “If imbalances occur among these eight channels of information, then the individual is forced to select those on which to focus – and the result may be compromised speech and communication. In the non-speaking population – a subset of the autism population, there is a disconnect between thinking ability and movement control. In the aphasic population, there is acquired damage between those two systems.”

Neuromodulation the Next Step?

Experts agree. Neuromodulation may be the next major step forward in relieving speech and communication disorders. In a 2022 issue of the journal Brain and Language, authors write, “Recent years have witnessed remarkable advances in the ability of neuroscience to characterize and influence brain circuits that drive cognition and behavior, including within the language system. Noninvasive neuromodulation techniques…have emerged as especially powerful and useful tools, both for interrogating intact language centers experimentally and for promoting recovery in patients with language deficits.”

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The Mind-Eye Institute uses eyeglass lenses to influence retinal processing and brain function and re-integrate a person’s sensory inputs, especially visual and auditory.

The scientists add that “noninvasive neuromodulation…can be combined readily with cutting-edge advances in brain imaging, cortical neurophysiology, and network neuroscience in order to make increasingly sophisticated inferences about the structure-function relationships that underlie language processing, the mechanisms by which neurologic disorders negatively impact communication ability, and the ways in which novel brain stimulation interventions may ameliorate these deficits.”

“Auditory localization and visual localization must match in order to lessen overall energy expended and sensory confusion,” Dr. Zelinsky said. “And that synchronization can be achieved through retinal stimulation.”

Why Is Visual Processing So Important?

Dr. Zelinsky also emphasized the importance of visual processing -- the ability to form images in the mind and to use these mental pictures as a way of learning, understanding, imagining, being creative, planning strategically for the future, setting goals, and speaking. It is a skill closely tied to brain development and function.

The images and information a person “sees” via light signals coming through the retina are reassembled and rearranged by the brain through a filter that includes emotions, motivation, and other sensory inputs, thereby allowing a person to make sense of the world – and communicate through speech, gesture, and written word. During her presentation, Dr. Zelinsky said visualization and visual processing requires these essential mental tools:

  • Identification (perceiving details).
  • Localization (spatial mapping to know where something is).
  • Navigation (planning movement from place to place, whether by shifting gaze or walking to a selected target).
  • Organization (ability to order, classify, and codify), and
  • Implementation (making decisions and planning, depending on what action is desired).

The Future

She concluded by emphasizing the future role of advanced optometry in analyzing and addressing the symptoms of a wide variety of brain abnormalities, including those affecting speech. “Eyeglasses may be unnecessary when a person sees 20/20. Yet, realizing that the retinas are part of the brain and just tiny imbalances affect performance, the thought of a small prescription for improved thinking does not seem so far-fetched.

“Optometric science is moving well beyond what one might consider its horse-and-buggy days of the 19th and 20th centuries when the main goal was simply to give patients central eyesight of 20/20 acuity. Progress in our understanding of the retina and advances in the technology required to evaluate it could one day make optometrists the go-to professionals for early detection and understanding of a host of serious disorders.”