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Research center promises better understanding, treatment of brain-injury-induced emotional issues

  • Nov. 19, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS -- Brain injuries often leave people with problems understanding, expressing or controlling their emotions in ways that undermine their relationships. On Wednesday, Indiana University researchers and the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana will open one of the world's most advanced laboratories designed to improve understanding and treatment of those emotion-related issues.

Research indicates that half or more of those with moderate-to-severe brain injuries have difficulty recognizing emotions expressed by others, have problems understanding their own emotional state, and suffer from irritability and aggression issues.

However, much of the research into these problems has been subjective and removed from "real life," said Dawn Neumann, Ph.D., director of the new InterFACE (Interactive and Functional Assessment of Communication and Emotion) Center at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana. There are limits, she said, to interviews of injured patients and family members or asking patients to respond to photographs of strangers.

"Asking someone to respond to a photograph of a person they don't know who's expressing anger is not a realistic re-creation of how they interact with people they live with and with whom they share lots of nonverbal cues," said Dr. Neumann, assistant research professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the IU School of Medicine.

Using advanced technology installed in a living-room-style setting, researchers will work to shed light on such problems by gathering objective data on real personal interactions in a more natural setting.

The tools available to researchers will 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.
  • An immersive virtual reality system.

"These tools will enable us to look at situations and diagnose contributing factors to irritability or aggressive behaviors," Dr. Neumann said. "We can review what someone did or said right before the person with a brain injury had an emotional response. We can monitor their physiological changes and determine whether the person with the brain injury was even aware of these underlying emotional cues. We can determine whether a patient missed cues because his eyes were looking elsewhere.

"We'll be able to observe what is going on internally and externally very objectively during these interactions."

Flora Hammond, M.D., chief of medical affairs at the Rehabilitation Hospital and chair of the IU Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, said irritability is a common issue that can place significant strains on marriages and other personal relationships involving people with traumatic brain injury.

"We believe this center will provide the best scientific evidence yet to understand these problems and develop more effective interventions to help patients and those around them," Dr. Hammond said.

"We believe this is the most advanced such research facility anywhere in the United States, one that will provide important benefits to patients across Indiana and beyond," said Daniel B. Woloszyn, Psy.D., CEO of Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana.

Dawn Neumann of IU and RHI volunteer Nic Nihiser work with InterFACE Center technology

Dawn Neumann of IU and RHI volunteer Nic Nihiser work with InterFACE Center technology | Photo by Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana

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