Researcher Siamak Yousefi, PhD, of UTHSC Aims To Use Big Data and Artificial Intelligence To Detect Glaucoma

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Dr. Siamak Yousefi

Siamak Yousefi, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and the Department of Genetics, Genomics, and Informatics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, was awarded an exploratory grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to use artificial intelligence as a tool to detect glaucoma early or in the beginning of its progression.

Glaucoma is a group of disorders that damages the optic nerve and can result in vision loss and complete blindness. It is the second-leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide and more than 3 million Americans are living with the disease. Routine eye exams are necessary for an accurate diagnosis and to prevent eye nerve damage. However, Dr. Yousefi believes there is one important factor keeping many from seeking proper treatment.

“Half of the people who suffer from glaucoma don’t even know they have the disease because it’s very hard to detect. There are no symptoms and the brain will adapt to some part of the vision loss,” Dr. Yousefi said. “This can happen all the way to early, and in some patients, the moderate stages of the disease.”

To address this problem, Yousefi has partnered with Tobias Elze, PhD, assistant professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard University Medical School to develop a joint artificial intelligence algorithm. The algorithm is a non-invasive procedure that will process retinal images to determine if a patient is at risk for glaucoma or in the early stages of the disease. As of now, the pair has collected about 1 million visual fields of data and will gather more images as their studies continue.

After investing over a year into this project, Dr. Yousefi has noticed a growing focus on preventing glaucoma on a national level, especially in people who might be more susceptible to having the disease.

“Glaucoma is one of the main targets of the NEI (National Eye Institute) from a health disparities perspective. It’s an aging disease, which means people who are older than 40 are a risk factor, so they should see a doctor,” Dr. Yousefi said. “Also, if they are African American, they are at risk, so they should get checked for glaucoma at the earliest time, possibly when they are young.”

With the intent of making these tools available to the vision and ophthalmology research communities, Dr. Yousefi’s work could offer substantial improvements in the prognosis and potential treatment efficiency of glaucoma.

Dr. Yousefi’s $499,229 project entitled, “Hybrid Artificial Intelligence Framework for Glaucoma Monitoring,” is being funded for two years. Dr. Yousefi was a research scientist at the University of California San Diego and a visiting assistant professor at the University of Tokyo, before joining UTHSC in November 2017.