NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

NEI’s Optican Retires After 40 Years at NIH

Dr. Lance Optican
Dr. Lance Optican

Dr. Lance Optican, chief of the section on neural modeling in NEI’s Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research (LSR), will be retiring this spring. He has been a key member of the neuroscience-oriented laboratory since 1978, serving as acting lab chief from 2002 to 2006 and mentoring generations of students, fellows and colleagues along the way. 

Optican occupied a unique niche at LSR: part theoretician, part engineer and part biologist. He created testable models for how neuronal circuitry in the brain controls eye movements. 

“Most people build normative models—that is, as if the brain were perfectly designed, rather than imperfectly organized through evolution,” said Optican’s staff scientist Dr. Christian Quaia. “Lance’s approach was to start from what we know about neural circuits in the brain.”

Optican’s journey into the eye movement field began at the California Institute of Technology, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering in 1972. Fascinated with the idea that one could trace electrical signals in the brain, he joined the laboratory of Dr. David Robinson, an engineer and a pioneer in the eye movement field, at Johns Hopkins University. Six years later, Optican came to NIH for a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. F.A. Miles, and in 1982, he became a tenure-track investigator at NEI.

Early on, Optican and collaborator Dr. Barry Richmond, an experimental neurobiologist also in the LSR, took long walks around campus, just talking about how the brain works. 

“We would say incredibly stupid things, and then we’d think better of them and say, ‘We’d better go for another walk!’” Optican said. “That was a really exceptional time.” Though it took them several years, those talks led to seminal papers that laid the groundwork for dozens of future studies relating to how neurons encode visual images.

A central focus of Optican’s research over the years has been rapid eye movements, called saccades. In a condition called nystagmus, saccadic system malfunctions result in uncontrolled, oscillating eye movements that make focusing on a single point impossible. Early models for how these oscillations occur were based on simple circuits copied from engineering designs. But Optican’s extensive collaborations with neurologists, neuroscientists and others helped him link specific brain circuits to nystagmus.

“I spent my career looking at data from neurophysiology and anatomy…I’ve been building models of eye movements—how visual information gets into the brain, how that information is used to target objects and then how the brain moves the eyes,” Optican said. 

After many years of filling in the gaps between theory and biology, “at some point it became clear that we knew enough about all these systems that we could influence clinical studies,” Optican said. His recent work focused on creating models to help diagnose and track progression of disorders of ocular movements, including Parkinson’s disease, which often leads to vision problems due to a disconnect between how the brain is moving the eye and when visual perception occurs. 

Along with postdoctoral fellow Dr. Elena Pretegiani, Optican designed a quantitative test for Parkinson’s severity. “In principle, all you have to do is have the patient look at a target and press a button, and by measuring their eye movements you can tell how severe his or her deficit is,” Optican explained. They hope the results of a preliminary clinical study will be available in the next year.   

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