For Jiabin Shen, an assistant professor of psychology, a new grant from the National institutes of Health is 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.
Shen’s latest federal research grant is a three-year, $713,112 package that will explore the use of virtual reality-based rehabilitation for children who have suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
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.
Virtual reality – commonly used in games, flight simulators and surgeries – offers a computer-generated reality for a person to interact within an artificial environment. It is used with special goggles and sensor-laden gloves.
The virtual reality system is an interventional tool to sharpen cognitive skills in children with traumatic brain injuries, notes Shen. 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 TBI 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 impact memory, emotions and balance, among other things. They can cause epilepsy and increase the risk for brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Pediatric TBI is “one of the leading causes of disabilities for U.S. children,” notes Shen. “Many of the victims, especially in severe cases, suffer from deficits in high-level cognitive functioning.”
Shen says he first took an interest in child psychology during graduate school while studying developmental psychology.
“I started to realize the importance of childhood in shaping adolescence, and adolescence shaping adulthood experiences,“ he says.
One reason Shen became passionate about using virtual reality for cognitive rehabilitation for children with brain injuries is that “children’s brains were very vulnerable to such traumatic experiences but yet equally resilient given proper rehab support.”
A previous pilot study supported the feasibility and safety of virtual reality-based intervention, says Shen, and his new research will examine preliminary effectiveness of the intervention on improving executive function as observed in lab and everyday settings.
Shen says 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.