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Researcher advances video-game based interventions for emotional issues arising from traumatic brain injury

Apr. 10, 2014

Half or more of people with moderate-to-severe brain injuries -- a growing issue in populations such as veterans in the years following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- have been shown in research studies to struggle with difficulty recognizing emotions in themselves and others.

Dawn Neumann

Dawn Neumann, Ph.D.

The result of this impairment is further aggravated as emotional disconnect gives rise to feelings of irritability and aggression in sufferers of the condition.

One IU researcher who is taking an innovative approach to the treatment of these individuals is Dawn Neumann, Ph.D., an assistant research professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the IU School of Medicine. She has teamed up with members of the School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI and the IU Research and Technology Corp. to create game-based virtual reality solutions to emotional impairments related to traumatic brain injury.

"After a brain injury, it is common for patients to have difficulty processing emotions. Currently there are not any established methods for treating these typical emotional impairments," said Dr. Neumann, whose work recently received a boost from a unique, commercially focused grant program from the National Institutes of Health.

The NIH's Small Business Technology Transfer grant program will provide an additional $180,000 to advance the Interactive and Functional Assessment of Communication and Emotion, or InterFACE, Center at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana.

Established in November, InterFACE is one of the world's most advanced laboratories to better understand and treat patients with emotional issues related to brain injury. The center's director is Dr. Neumann.

NIH Small Business Technology Transfer grants are designed to advance work on innovative and evidence-based products that become commercially sustainable and facilitate the transition of scientific evidence into clinical practice. The funds provided to InterFACE will support a study, "The Emotion Builder: An Intervention for Emotional Deficits after Brain Injury," which aims to develop and test the feasibility of a virtual reality video game to treat problems with emotional self-awareness and to affect recognition and empathy after traumatic brain injury. 


Dawn Neumann of IU and Nic Nihiser, a volunteer at the RHI, work with InterFACE Center technology | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE REHABILITATION HOSPITAL OF INDIANA

"This study combines state-of-the-science knowledge of emotional processing after brain injury with innovative technology to develop methods that we hope will be of benefit to individuals with brain injury and their close others," said Jim Malec, Ph.D., professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the IU School of Medicine and director of research at Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana. Malec is a co-investigator on the project.

The high-tech tools currently being used, or under development, to advance the project include high-definition video and audio recording systems; a wireless system to collect physiological information such as heart rates, respiration, galvanic skin response and muscle activity; facial expression analysis software; an eye-tracking system; and an immersive virtual reality system.

The virtual reality software system's development is led by Joseph Defazio, Ph.D., director of Media Arts and Science in the School of Informatics and Computing. An educator, musician and software engineer, Dr. Defazio's expertise encompasses graphics, animation, sound, video, 3D environments, authoring, programming toward interactive simulation and game applications. He is also the producer of several multi-media projects across currently on display across the city of Indianapolis, including an exhibit at the Eiteljorg Museum of the American Indians and Western Art.

Moreover, Dr. Defazio's system, and the physical equipment which it supports, will be packed into a "living-room-style" environment designed to put patients with moderate-to-severe TBI at ease during testing. Among the bigger challenges being tackled at the center is the collection of objective, scientifically viable data on real personal interactions in a natural setting.

If the intervention proves effective, Dr. Neumann said InterFACE will enable clinicians to provide "a safe and engaging method for retraining complicated emotional deficits in simulated real life situations" -- a significant leap forward in the treatment of emotional issues resulting from traumatic brain injury.

An additional co-investigator on the project is Flora Hammond, M.D., chair and Covalt Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the School of Medicine and chief of medical affairs at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana. InterFACE is also supported by Joseph Trebley, Ph.D., head of start up support and promotion at the IURTC.

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