Developing software to treat emotional deficits that accompany brain trauma
The human brain has fascinated Dawn Neumann since her undergraduate days at what is now Stockton University. Once a physical therapy major, she was influenced by a cognitive psychology class to change majors—but it was a chance conversation just before graduation that set her career on its current course.
"Cognitive psychology is all about how the brain works, and I fell in love. Immediately. It was the first time I went home and couldn't wait to read my textbook and study," she said. "Close to graduation day, I overheard my advisor talking to one of her other students, who wanted to go into neuropsychology.
"So I jumped in and asked, 'What is that?' My adviser said it's someone who evaluates the way your brain functions. Then I asked, 'Well, who needs that?' And she said, 'People who have brain injury.' Then I said, 'Well, that's interesting. What happens after the evaluation? Do they get treated? Do they get better?' And she said that some people get cognitive therapy and some get better.
"That's when I decided it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people who have had brain injuries get better."
A little more than 20 years later, Neumann—now an assistant research professor in the IU School of Medicine's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation—is doing more than treating patients with traumatic brain injuries.
She is helping to revolutionize the field.
Through a startup company called EmotEd, launched through the Indiana University Research and Technology Corp.'s Spin Up program, Neumann is developing a therapeutic software package known as Emotion Builder. It employs reality-based videos, quizzes, slide presentations, and surveys to help patients better manage and eventually reduce the emotional deficits that often accompany brain trauma.
According to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2.5 million emergency room visits, hospitalizations, or deaths related to brain trauma occurred in 2010. Along with the loss of cognitive, motor, and sensory functions, emotional deficits such as depression, anxiety, aggression, loss of impulse control, or personality changes can occur, which in turn are treated through counseling.
We're finding that we are significantly improving our patients' emotional awareness. We are significantly reducing their alexithymia, as well as reducing anxiety and aggression and significantly increasing positive affect.
"Most counseling sessions between a therapist and a patient are free-flowing discussions guided by therapeutic principles. But there's not a lot of structure in the way they unfold. Therapist A, Therapist B and Therapist C—all can approach treatment with the same patient in a very different way," said Neumann, who is also a member of the clinical research faculty at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana.
"What we are doing is providing structure to a program that will enable a therapist to use this software as a training tool for their patient that is delivered in a structured fashion," she explained. "But it's also designed in a way that is patient centered."
So far, Neumann has received more than $244,000 in state and federal grants to develop Emotion Builder—most of it in 2014. With assistance from faculty at the medical school and the rehabilitation hospital, EmotEd partnered with Broad Ripple-based DeveloperTown to build a wireframe model of the platform.
The first module is focused on treating alexithymia, a condition that makes it difficult for people to recognize their own emotions and the emotions of others. Future applications will include therapies for stroke patients; people with autism; military and public safety personnel who experience post-traumatic stress syndrome; and sufferers of depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.
Pilot tests on a dozen patients at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana have shown "exciting" results, Neumann said. EmotEd recently applied to the National Institutes of Health for a $1.8 million Phase II Small Business Technology Transfer grant in hopes of performing expanded tests of Emotion Builder at three clinical sites.
"We're finding that we are significantly improving our patients' emotional awareness," Neumann said. "We are significantly reducing their alexithymia, as well as reducing anxiety and aggression and significantly increasing positive affect."