MU Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor Giovanna Guidoboni has been working on building models to help formalize the cause and effect mechanisms and hypotheses of clinicians throughout her career.
She and her research group’s most recent breakthrough came when their theoretical predictions in the realm of glaucoma were confirmed by a population-based study of nearly 10,000 subjects. Glaucoma is a disease of the eye wherein the optic nerve degenerates progressively, potentially causing blindness if not treated rapidly.
Research and previous modeling efforts in this area were inconclusive. Some publications said that the increase in intraocular pressure often associated with glaucoma would decrease blood flow to the eye. Others said the intraocular pressure had little to no effect on blood flow.
“I was working to try to clarify the big confusion related to the interaction between the intraocular pressure, blood flow, blood pressure and vascular regulation and their associations with glaucoma,” Guidoboni explained. “It took approximately a year to pin down one particular question to address: If we increase the intraocular pressure, do we expect blood flow in the eye to decrease?”
The research began during her time at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI). Guidoboni partnered with ocular physiologist prof. Alon Harris, director of clinical research at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Eye Institute in Indianapolis, and utilized his data, along with blood flow data related to both humans and animals, to develop the first mathematical models describing the mechanisms that govern ocular hemodynamics.
“I was amazed at how so many things could actually be visualized in the eye, I was thinking that if they already had all of this information, why do they need us?” Guidoboni recalled of her first visit to Harris’ lab. “Dr. Harris said they had been collecting data for decades, but they couldn’t make sense of the mechanisms that were giving rise to the data in the first place.”
Put more simply: Clinicians knew what was happening but weren’t sure about the mechanical reasons why, which is the exact arena in which engineers thrive. Guidoboni and her team began to build mathematical models that could account for the discrepancies and help better predict why exactly blood flow might be limited in the eye and what factors determine whether it is or isn’t. Blood pressure became a critical factor, one that could be explained using basic fluid mechanics.
“The higher the pressure inside the tube, the stronger the tube will be to resist external pressure,” Guidoboni said.
The team since has built several models related to blood flow in various areas of the eye and have set about validating them based on parameters gleaned from pouring through years of previous research. These models allow clinicians to predict possible reasons for blood flow issues and can lead to improved care.
“Now, really, we have developed a series of models capable of describing blood flow in the retina and other vascular beds in the eye,” Guidoboni said. “We’re now capable of simulating oxygen dynamics throughout the system and its relationship with hemodynamics and biomechanics, whose pathological alterations may lead to the degeneration of the optic nerve affecting glaucoma patients.”