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ODU Research Team Developing Tests to Determine Soldiers' Fitness for Duty Following Mild Head Trauma

A team of Old Dominion University researchers has won a $270,000, two-year grant to supply research expertise for Advanced Anti-Terror Technologies (A2T2) in the continued development of a virtual reality based system to determine whether soldiers who have suffered mild traumatic brain injury are fit to return to duty through a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) phase II grant.

The ODU team, led by principal investigator for ODU Dr.Stacie Ringleb, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, also includes Ginger Watson-Papelis, associate professor of STEM education studies; Steve Morrison, associate professor of physical therapy; and Jim Bliss, associate professor of psychology.

This project is necessary "because nobody really knows how to determine if the warfighters are fit for duty after they have completed their rehabilitation," Ringleb said.

The request for proposals from the Department of Defense seeks the development of a virtual-reality, game-based patient assessment system.

The ODU team designed a testing procedure during phase I, which included combining physical and cognitive challenges. Specifically, cognitive challenges were embedded into a prototype shooting simulator called CAPTURE (Cognitive and Physiological Testing Urban Research Environment). The participant would complete the cognitive tasks, followed by a battery of physical tests, followed by repeat data collected in CAPTURE. Thus, determining if the physical stress had an effect on the cognitive and functional performance of the participant.

"The issue with people with mild traumatic brain injury is that they might pass all the neuropsychological tests, and they might pass all the physical tests. However, if you combine a cognitive stress with a physical stress, the patient may not perform well. Therefore, the goal of this study is to combine the two stressors after the patient has passed the neuropsychological and physical tests, and has been cleared by their physician to move to this step. Hopefully, this tool will allow us to determine with more certainty that someone is fit to return to duty," Ringleb said.

The ODU researchers will also use this test to determine if personnel are faking symptoms to avoid being declared fit to return to duty. "One of the things in our proposal is to have college students pretend to perform poorly, to see if we can find a metric to identify malingerers, rather than people who actually have an impairment," Ringleb said.

The goal in Phase II of the SBIR is to continue refining the prototype and testing protocol, and then to run the first tests on military personnel who are recovering from mild traumatic brain injury.

The ultimate goal of the SBIR is to have a product developed that can be marketed and commercialized. Ringleb said if the group is able to bring its product through Phase III of the SBIR, it could be the type of low-cost diagnostic tool that regional hospitals can afford.

The ODU researchers are still designing the cognitive and physical tasks that will be included in the phase II prototype. The hope is to have the design for Phase II in place within 12 to 18 months, to allow for data collection in the last six to 12 months of the project.

This article was posted on: November 1, 2010

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