A bedside electronic device that measures eye movements can successfully determine whether the cause of severe, continuous, disabling dizziness is a stroke or something benign, according to results of a small study led by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers.
"Using this device can directly predict who has had a stroke and who has not," says David Newman-Toker, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology and otolaryngology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the study described in the journal Stroke. "We're spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on expensive stroke work-ups that are unnecessary, and probably missing the chance to save tens of thousands of lives because we aren't properly diagnosing their dizziness or vertigo as stroke symptoms."
Newman-Toker says if additional larger studies confirm these results, the device could one day be the equivalent of an electrocardiogram (EKG), a simple noninvasive test routinely used to rule out heart attack in patients with chest pain. And, he adds, universal use of the device could "virtually eliminate deaths from misdiagnosis and save a lot of time and money."
To distinguish stroke from a more benign condition, such as vertigo linked to an inner ear disturbance, specialists typically use three eye movement tests that are essentially a stress test for the balance system. In the hands of specialists, these bedside clinical tests (without the device) have been shown in several large research studies to be extremely accurate — "nearly perfect, and even better than immediate MRI," says Newman-Toker. One of those tests, known as the horizontal head impulse test, is the best predictor of stroke. To perform it, doctors or technicians ask patients to look at a target on the wall and keep their eyes on the target as doctors move the patients' heads from side to side. But, says Newman-Toker, it requires expertise to determine whether a patient is making the fast corrective eye adjustments that would indicate a benign form of dizziness as opposed to a stroke.
For the new study, researchers instead performed the same test using a small, portable device - a video-oculography machine that detects minute eye movements that are difficult for most physicians to notice. The machine includes a set of goggles, akin to swimming goggles, with a USB-connected webcam and an accelerometer in the frame. The webcam is hooked up to a laptop where a continuous picture of the eye is taken. Software interprets eye position based on movements and views of the pupil, while the accelerometer measures the speed of the movement of the head.
Newman-Toker says the test could be easily employed to prevent misdiagnosis of as many as 100,000 strokes a year, leading to earlier stroke diagnosis and more efficient triage and treatment decisions for patients with disabling dizziness. Overlooked strokes mean delayed or missed treatments that lead to roughly 20,000 to 30,000 preventable deaths or disabilities a year, he says. The technology, he adds, could someday be used in a smartphone application to enable wider access to a quick and accurate diagnosis of strokes whose main symptom is dizziness, as opposed to one-sided weakness or garbled speech.