Tara Alvarez, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering, is conducting neuroscience research that could help stroke victims recover their vision but also lead to diagnosis of other visual diseases. Alvarez seeks to understand how the brain learns when visually locating objects in three-dimensional (3D) space. Understanding the learning strategies that the human brain uses to control eye movement will also yield insight into the general problem of motor learning. Her research will lead to a better understanding of basic motor control and also discover how dysfunctions in the eyes’ three-dimensional tracking system affect motor learning.
In 2005, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Alvarez an NSF Career Award. Alvarez is using part of her NSF grant to enhance the Vision and Neural Engineering Laboratory at NJIT and to design new courses for undergraduates in NJIT’s expanding biomedical engineering program. In addition, Alvarez has developed a one-week course for NJIT’s pre-college FEMME program which teaches grade-school girls, most of whom are minorities, the fundamentals of science, technology and pre-engineering concepts.
Alvarez’s research will help people with a visual problem called convergence insufficiency, or the inability to easily fixate the eyes on a near target. A person with convergence insufficiency cannot read or look at a computer screen for more than twenty minutes without getting headaches as well as blurred and double vision. The condition has also been linked to learning disabilities. And as societies become more dependent on prolonged and close-up visual tasks such as computer use, there will be more of a need to help people with such vision problems.
Areas of Expertise (5)
Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry (professional)
Alvarez joined approximately 300 fellows, who are the leading scientists and clinicians in the field, at an induction ceremony at the academy’s 2019 annual meeting in Orlando, Fla. At the conference, she gave a talk on the neural mechanisms underlying a vision therapy that helps patients with a disorder known as convergence insufficiency (CI) to read and focus clearly on close objects. That research was recognized by the academy as among the “10 most newsworthy of 2019.”
Auggie Award: Most Innovative Breakthrough (professional)
The use of virtual reality to change disparity (offset between left and right eye) programmed in a novel way that is patent-pending way which leads to a long term change of the vergence (how we see in depth) system. Our team has filed for an international patent application entitled "Method, system, and apparatus for treatment of binocular dysfunctions."
Auggie Award: Women XR Laureate (professional)
Honoring a a female researcher or project manager leading an industry-academia collaborative project. Awarded to Dr. Tara Alvarez as head of the VERVE project.
Edison Patent Award (professional)
NJIT and inventors Tara Lynn Alvarez Ph.D. (NJIT) and Bérangère Granger (Essilor International S.A.) received an Edison Patent Award in the biomedical technology category for “Method for Determining the Acceptance of Progressive Addition Lenses” (U.S. Patent 8,814,361). The invention establishes a methodology by which a clinician can identify which people will easily adapt to Progressive Addition Lenses compared to those who will have a more difficult time.
Outstanding Woman Scientist of NJ
NORA Founding Members Award for Science
CAREER Award National Science Foundation
Sigma Xi: Research Honor Society
Tau Beta Pi: Engineering Honor Society
Rutgers University: Ph.D., Biomedical Engineering 1998
Rutgers University: M.S., Biomedical Engineering 1997
Rutgers University: B.S., Biomedical Engineering 1994
- Vision and Neural Engineering Laboratory
- Oculomotor Technologies, CSO
Media Appearances (3)
An NJIT vision therapy team wins 'most innovative' in worldwide VR competition
"We are thrilled to win the Auggie Innovation Award—and to be here at all. Conferences such as AWE EU are a critical meeting ground for industry and academia, serving as a catalyst that can lead to breakthroughs that change our society," said Tara Alvarez, professor of biomedical engineering at NJIT and the team's leader. "So much great science exists within our labs, but it can be a challenge to translate those ideas into broader societal impacts."...
Girls are interested in STEM; so why aren’t more women working in it?
“In 2011, my colleague got promoted. The next year, I still didn’t get promoted. So, I asked my colleague what they did, exactly, and asked to see their resume. I wanted to know, what was so fabulous about them that I was not being promoted? Their answer was, I asked for (the job). It had never dawned on me that I should be asking for my promotion. I thought it would simply be something that my superiors and I discussed. I never had the mentorship to even think that I should be the one initiating.”...
For women in STEM, focus is on creating networks
"Women in general tend to work well in teams," said Tara Alvarez, who joined the NJIT faculty in 2001. "By doing this collectively, they don't feel so isolated. And I think that is helpful in getting women to be engaged and feel that they can succeed."
Alvarez, who studies visual impairments brought on by traumatic brain injuries and serves as a mentor with Advance, said she is hopeful that, in time, the STEM landscape will look different.
"My kids come to me to get their toys fixed," Alvarez said. "My kids are going to know that mommy is a scientist. … For them, it's not going to be strange."...
Method for determining the acceptance of progressive addition lenses
Method for determining the acceptance of progressive addition lenses of a wearer, the method comprising: a fusional vergence parameter providing step during which at least one fusional vergence parameter representing the fusional vergence of the wearer is provided, an acceptance determining step during which the value of the at least one fusional vergence parameter is compared to a predetermined threshold value so as to determine the probability of acceptance of progressive addition lens of the wearer.
Research Grants (4)
DEVELOPMENT OF FNIRS EQUIPMENT FOR ASSESSING FUNCTIONAL CONNECTIVITY IN BRAIN INJURY
New Jersey Institute of Technology $499,930
his proposal requests funding to design an integrated, portable functional near infrared spectroscopy instrument (fNIRS) that was successfully developed with Vision and Neural Assessment Equipment. The system will have the following capabilities: 1) custom software with user-friendly script language to program independent and multiple visual stimuli, 2) simultaneous recording of functional connectivity with fNIRS and eye movement responses, 3) library of visual stimuli for other clinicians to use and 4) data analysis algorithms to determine potential brain connectivity measures or biomarkers that are sensitive and specific in identifying neurological and visual deficits. This transformative project will enable basic and clinical research scientists to assess brain functions in normal and impaired populations.
CAREER: Mapping the Mind in Search of Oculomotor Learning Strategies
New Jersey Institute of Technology $556,497
This project will establish the Vision and Neural Engineering Laboratory at NJIT. The PI has already established a working oculomotor research laboratory. The PI proposes a set of experiments to assess vergent (depth) eye movement mechanisms in motion tracking. The core of her proposed techniques is based around learning a motor control task under paradigms of reinforcement and interference learning. Visual tracking as well as fMRI diagnostics will be used, followed by subsequent analysis via ICA.
I-Corps: Virtual Reality Vision Therapy
New Jersey Institute of Technology $50,000
The broader impact/commercial potential of this I-Corps project is to serve the "Convergence Insufficiency" clinical population, which includes millions of people in the US alone, as well as 50% of the brain injury population who has post concussive syndrome (PCS). Designing engaging vision therapy protocols that leverage virtual reality gaming technology will have a dramatic impact in particular on this young population's academic and professional career growth and goals. Broad market impacts also include the opportunity for translational research funded by prior NSF grants to reach the general public. This solution has the potential to be an affordable alternative to traditional vision therapy administered in the comfort of one's home saving both healthcare cost and patient's time.
MRI: Development of Visual and Neural Assessment Equipment
New Jersey Institute of Technology $319,015
This proposal requests funding to design an integrated, portable neurovisual assessment system with the following capabilities: 1) custom software with user-friendly script language to program independent and multiple, simultaneous visual stimuli to the left and right eye for non-engineers, 2) simultaneous eye movement and sensory neuro-electrical activity quantification from visual stimuli, and 3) data analysis algorithms to determine potential physiological measurements or biomarkers that are sensitive and specific in identifying neurological and visual deficits. This transformative project will enable basic and clinical research scientists to assess neuro-visual functions in normal and impaired populations. This system will be integrated into the PIs' undergraduate and graduate courses. It will enable about 200 students annually to train in imperative skills needed in the growing Biomedical Engineering field (e.g. collect and analyze physiological data). It will be used for tours to introduce over 350 4th to 12th grade students annually to Engineering and Mathematics. The first application of this project will be to evaluate biomarkers to aid in the diagnosis of mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI).
Mitchell Scheiman, Henry Talasan, Gladys L Mitchell, Tara L Alvarez
To evaluate changes in objective measures of disparity vergence after office-based vision therapy (OBVT) for concussion-related convergence insufficiency (CI), and determine the feasibility of using this objective assessment as an outcome measure in a clinical trial.
Tara L Alvarez, Eun H Kim, Chang Yaramothu, Bérangère Granger-Donetti
A paucity of research exists to investigate whether the normal aging process influences the ability to adapt disparity vergence and phoria. Vergence eye movements and dissociated phoria were recorded from 49 healthy subjects (ages 20–70 years) using an objective eye movement tracking system. Four-degree vergence responses were modified using a double-step protocol. Dynamics of vergence were quantified via peak velocity. The phoria adaptation experiment measured the magnitude (net change in phoria level) and rate (magnitude divided by the time constant) of phoria adaption during 5 min of sustained fixation on a binocular target (40 cm/8.44° from midline). The magnitude of phoria adaptation decreased as a function of age (r = −0.33; p = 0.04). The ability to adapt vergence peak velocity and the rate of phoria adaptation showed no significant age-related influence (p > 0.05). The data suggest that the ability to modify the disparity vergence system and the rate of phoria adaptation are not dependent on age; whereas, the magnitude of phoria adaptation decreases as part of the normal adult aging process. These results have clinical and basic science implications because one should consider age when assessing the changes in the magnitude of phoria adaptation which can be abnormal in those with oculomotor dysfunctions.
Tara L Alvarez, Raj Jaswal, Suril Gohel, Bharat B Biswal
Convergence insufficiency (CI) is a prevalent binocular vision disorder with symptoms that include double/blurred vision, eyestrain, and headaches when engaged in reading or other near work. Randomized clinical trials support that Office-Based Vergence and Accommodative Therapy with home reinforcement leads to a sustained reduction in patient symptoms. However, the underlying neurophysiological basis for treatment is unknown. Functional activity and vergence eye movements were quantified from seven binocularly normal controls (BNC) and four CI patients before and after 18 h of vergence training...
Tara L Alvarez, Eun H Kim, Vincent R Vicci, Sunil K Dhar, Bharat B Biswal, AM Barrett
This study assessed the prevalence of convergence insufficiency (CI) with and without simultaneous vision dysfunctions within the traumatic brain injury (TBI) sample population because although CI is commonly reported with TBI, the prevalence of concurrent visual dysfunctions with CI in TBI is unknown.
Yelda Alkan, Bharat B Biswal, Tara L Alvarez
Eye movement research has traditionally studied solely saccade and/or vergence eye movements by isolating these systems within a laboratory setting. While the neural correlates of saccadic eye movements are established, few studies have quantified the functional activity of vergence eye movements using fMRI. This study mapped the neural substrates of vergence eye movements and compared them to saccades to elucidate the spatial commonality and differentiation between these systems...