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The National Institutes of Health reportedly awarded a grant to an assistant professor of psychology at University of Massachusetts Lowell in order to explore the use of virtual reality-based rehabilitation for children who have suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). This is seen as the latest step in a long march toward improving the quality of life for children and adolescents suffering brain injuries through the use of technology and developmental psychology.
Jiabin Shen has been conducting research in pediatric injury since 2011, including prevention and treatment. His research involves using virtual reality to help children with TBI regain their executive function skills during their rehabilitation. His latest federal research grant is a three-year, $713,112 package.
Most commonly used in games, flight simulators and surgeries, virtual reality offers a computer-generated reality for a person to interact within an artificial environment. It is used with special goggles and sensor-laden gloves.
Shen notes that the virtual reality system is an interventional tool to sharpen cognitive skills in children with traumatic brain injuries. Its custom-designed hardware setup is aimed at the clinical needs of children with TBI, and it has virtual reality games designed to train inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility.
A traumatic brain injury usually occurs as a result of a violent blow or jolt to the head. Objects such as bullets or shattered skull fragments can also penetrate through delicate brain tissue and cause a traumatic injury. A mild traumatic brain injury has the potential to temporarily affect a victim’s brain cells, while more serious brain injuries can result in torn tissue, bruising, bleeding, and other permanent damage.
The functional impact of TBI in children can be different than in adults—deficits may not be immediately apparent because the pediatric brain is still developing. TBI in children is a chronic disease process rather than a one-time event, because symptoms may change and unfold over time.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), brain injury is the leading cause of disability and death in children and adolescents in the U.S. The two age groups at greatest risk for brain injury are age 0-4 and 15-19. Among those ages 0 to 19, each year an average of 62,000 children sustain brain injuries requiring hospitalization as a result of motor vehicle crashes, falls, sports injuries, physical abuse and other causes.
A staggering 564,000 children are seen in hospital emergency departments for brain injury and released. Among children ages 0 to 14, brain injury results in an estimated 2,685 deaths, 37,000 hospitalizations, and 435,000 emergency department visits.
As Shen noted, pediatric TBI is “one of the leading causes of disabilities for U.S. children. Many of the victims, especially in severe cases, suffer from deficits in high-level cognitive functioning.”
His new research will examine preliminary effectiveness of the intervention on improving executive function as observed in lab and everyday settings. Shen said the funding will support patient recruitment, intervention delivery, data collection and analysis, and hiring doctoral students to assist with the project while receiving hands-on training in conducting clinical research.