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Bioengineering professor sets gold standard in optics research

A device created by Gary Yao, professor of bioengineering, and Child Health Department Professor Emerita Judith Miles it can collect high-resolution images of pupillary responses without the child and his or her eyes needing to remain still, an important factor when considering that, at this point, it’s being used on children as young as 2 years old.

A device created by Gary Yao, professor of bioengineering, and Child Health Department Professor Emerita Judith Miles measures how the pupil responds to light, particularly how long it takes to react to the stimuli and the amount the pupil contracts. The pupil responds differently to the stimuli in children with neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, providing a different method for earlier detection than the typical behavioral-based approach. Photo courtesy of Judith Miles

Edmund Optics Worldwide gives out just three gold-level Educational Awards per year — one for the Americas, one for Asia and one for Europe. This year, the Americas’ recipient calls the University of Missouri home.

Gary Yao, a professor in the Bioengineering Department, recently received the 2014 Educational Award from Edmund Optics, and with it, $10,000 in Edmund products, for his work using pupillary light reflex to screen for neurodevelopmental disorders, particularly autism, in young children.

The company gives out three honors per region in an Olympic medal-style gold-silver-bronze format, putting Yao’s selection as a gold-level recipient in rarified air and shedding light not only on his work, but the quality of research done across the MU campus.

“When they called, they also asked about other optics related research on campus, and they were surprised to know that there are many people doing exciting optics and imaging related research here,” Yao said.

Yao has been working on the project since 2006, working closely with Child Health Department Professor Emerita Judith Miles, who has spent most of her career studying autism and whose participation in the project Yao termed vital.

“Dr. Miles is the driving force behind this project as she recognizes this important need from the medical side,” he said. “Without her participation, we couldn’t have reached this far.”

The device they created measures how the pupil responds to light, particularly how long it takes to react to the stimuli and the amount the pupil contracts. The pupil responds differently to the stimuli in children with neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, providing a different method for early detection than the typical behavioral-based approach.

The team has spent years creating the device, then adapting it to the point where it can collect high-resolution images of pupillary responses without the child and his or her eyes needing to remain still, an important factor when considering that, at this point, it’s being used on children as young as 2 years old.

“One important feature of the pupil response is that it’s an involuntary reflex,” Yao said. “Even if the kids don’t want to cooperate, you shine a light, and the pupil’s always going to tell you certain things inside the brain.”

The team is currently testing its method in children 2-to-6 years old with autism. About one in 68 children is affected by autism according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], and early detection is critical to the treatment process.

“Hopefully we can continue to move it down to test in infants,” Yao said. “Most children with autism are not diagnosed until they’re 4 or older. The only available treatment is through early behavioral intervention, which needs an effective method to ensure early screening and diagnosis. We hope our research can contribute to this goal.”