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Shedding light on brain functions

Shedding light on brain functions

Bioengineering Professor Hanli Liu, left, and social work Assistant Professor Alexa Smith-Osborne explore better treatment for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other cognitive problems.

Some veterans attending UT Arlington experience challenges in the classroom. Dung Mai, for example, struggles taking tests. The research of Alexa Smith-Osborne and Hanli Liu may help the exercise science major learn why.

“When I came back to school, I had some test anxiety,” says Mai, a Navy petty officer who served stints in Bahrain and Jordan. “I thought it might be more than just anxiety, so this research helps me find out what my brain is doing, where I am in learning.”

Dr. Smith-Osborne from the School of Social Work and Dr. Liu in the Bioengineering Department are exploring better treatment for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other issues that hamper cognition. They believe that a hybrid of testing and diagnostics will lead to better therapy and care.

Liu thinks the key is joining the psychosocial assessments with physiological testing. “That will provide better information for where people are in their ability to learn.”

Thousands of military veterans are taking advantage of legislation that helps pay for their college education. At UT Arlington, veteran enrollment reached 1,128 in spring 2011, more than double the number two years ago.

“Our researchers look at challenges and problems people face every day. Helping military veterans through University research is just part of who we are and what we strive to provide,” says Ron Elsenbaumer, UT Arlington provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “I think many of these projects will help countless veterans live more normal lives.”

The work of Smith-Osborne and Liu also could extend beyond aiding veterans.

“The much broader use would be for any head trauma victims to use this hybrid system of brain scanning and testing to show what is happening so they can make more informed decisions to support quality of life, and to show doctors what treatment is best for specific patients,” Smith-Osborne says.

The research uses one of three cutting-edge optical brain-imaging devices to explore applications in cognitive sciences. The emerging technology employs light to scan the brain and lets researchers “see” brain functions without invasive procedures. A veteran’s forehead can be scanned while he or she sits in a chair and takes cognitive tests. Liu says the beauty of the machine is its portability and ease of use.

Smith-Osborne and Liu met through discussion groups at UT Arlington’s Southwest Center for Mind, Brain, and Education, which explores connections between brain anatomy and physiology, cognitive neuroscience, educational philosophy, learning processes, and learning issues like dyslexia and attention deficits.

In 2007 Smith-Osborne founded the Student Veteran Project, a clinical intervention that offers free services to help veterans returning to college. Some were experiencing learning difficulties associated with the interactive effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, as well as prior learning disabilities and co-occurring conditions such as pain.

A private donation fund has been established to help pay for the assessments, which typically insurance does not cover. The program is open to all veterans.

“We hope that the research testing leads to policy changes that will expand these types of resources for veterans,” Smith-Osborne says. “Rapid advances in engineering and cognitive science need to be translated to practical applications that people can use to reach their life goals.”