UMass Lowell researcher receives NIH support to develop therapies for young people with TBIs

A UMass Lowell researcher developing innovative therapies for injured children and teens has received more than $700,000 from the National Institutes of Health to support that work.

UMass Lowell's Jiabin Shen, assistant professor of psychology, is exploring how virtual reality-based rehabilitation could improve cognitive functioning in young people with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). A new, three-year grant from the NIH marks Shen's latest step in a long march toward improving the quality of life for these patients through technology and developmental psychology.

A traumatic brain injury is caused by a blow, jolt or bump to the head that disrupts normal brain function, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The injuries can range in severity from mild to severe and can affect memory, emotions and balance, among other things. In some cases, they can cause epilepsy and increase the risk for brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

Traumatic brain injuries are a leading cause of disabilities for children in the United States, according to Shen.

Many of the victims, especially in severe cases, suffer from deficits in high-level cognitive functioning."

Jiabin Shen, Assistant Professor of Psychology, UMass Lowell

Virtual reality - commonly used in games, flight simulators and surgeries - offers a computer-generated world in which individuals use special goggles and sensor-laden gloves to interact in the created environment.

In therapeutic settings, virtual-reality systems offer interventional tools that can sharpen cognitive skills in children with TBIs. Custom-designed hardware setups can accommodate the clinical needs of patients and specialized games can improve memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibition control, according to Shen.

A previous study supported the feasibility and safety of virtual reality-based intervention, Shen said. His new research will examine the effectiveness of the intervention on improving patients' mental functioning as observed in lab and everyday settings.

The NIH funding will support patient recruitment, intervention delivery, data collection and analysis. It will also allow Shen to hire doctoral students to assist with the project, which will provide them with hands-on training in how to conduct clinical research, he said.

Shen has been studying how to prevent and treat pediatric injuries since 2011. He first took an interest in child psychology during graduate school when he began to recognize the importance of childhood in shaping the rest of an individual's life. He believes virtual reality holds great promise for cognitive rehabilitation in young patients.

"Children's brains are very vulnerable to traumatic experiences but yet equally resilient given proper rehab support," he said.

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