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Recently Awarded Research Grants

Project Title:

Understanding Key Components of Successful Autonomous Space Missions

Dr. Tofighi

Project Principal Investigator/s:
Dr. Davood Tofighi

Funding Agency:
Georgia Institute of Technology

Amount Awarded:
$200,000

Period of Performance:
07/2017 - 06/2019

Goals and Aims of Study

Exploration space missions will require that crewmembers maintain effective task and teamwork while confined in an isolated environment over long durations. Communication with ground support will be significantly delayed during long duration exploration missions or may be disrupted or unavailable during portions of the mission.  Space crews will be required not only to manage their own behavioral health and team performance during periods of autonomy, but also to navigate varying levels of autonomy as needed to coordinate and collaborate with mission control despite communication challenges. To date, we lack a scientifically grounded model of the relationship between crew autonomy and team effectiveness, and the cognitive, interpersonal and motivational/affective mechanisms that explain how crew autonomy influences team effectiveness of both crew and mission control.  As a result, we do not know how best to prepare crewmembers and mission control personnel throughout these long duration exploration missions.  The proposed research will address these gaps.  We will conduct several ground-based analog missions that simulate work and living conditions during long duration exploration missions (i.e., confinement for a long period, social isolation, communication delay with mission control, mission objectives, off-nominal events) to a) examine and model the impact of crew autonomy on both the crew and mission control, and b) to determine whether its impact changes over time.

How this Research Will Benefit Society

The research is a part of NASA Human Research Program’s effort to investigate and mitigate the highest risks to astronaut health and performance in exploration missions. Findings of our research will be used to provide human health and performance countermeasures, knowledge, technologies, and tools to enable safe, reliable, and productive human space exploration. The scope of this goal includes both the successful completion of exploration missions and the preservation of astronaut health over the life of the astronaut.

Project Title:

Neural Mechanisms of Spatial Disorientation in Alzheimer's Disease

Project Principal Investigator/s:
Dr. Benjamin Clark

Funding Agency:
Alzheimer's Association

Amount Awarded:
$150,000

Period of Performance:
10/2018 - 09/2018

Goals and Aims of Study

How this Research Will Benefit Society

Because Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder, scientists are looking to clarify the brain changes that occur in the disease’s earliest stage, when therapies can be most effective. These early changes include the clumping of protein molecules called beta-amyloid and tau in the temporal lobe — a brain region key to learning and memory. Research has also found that people with early Alzheimer’s experience spatial disorientation, or the inability to recognize places and find their way from one location to another, even in familiar environments such as a neighborhood or home. While scientists do not know exactly how spatial disorientation develops in early Alzheimer’s disease, evidence suggests that it may involve damage to certain brain cells called “head-direction” cells. These are cell that become activated when an animal points its head in a particular direction suggesting their importance in spatial orientation. However, damage to head-direction cells may induce spatial disorientation and possibly play a role in the development of dementia.

Benjamin Clark, Ph.D., and colleagues plan to test the hypothesis that spatial disorientation in early Alzheimer’s disease is due in part to an impaired head-direction cell system. For this effort, they will use a novel rat model engineered to develop beta-amyloid, tau, and other Alzheimer’s-related brain changes. They will assess whether the mice develop changes to the structure and activity of their head-direction cells, and whether these changes are associated with poor performance on spatial orientation tasks. Such work will involve sophisticated techniques for imaging brain cells and recording electrical cellular function from this network of cells. 

The results of this effort, if successful, could lead to a greater understanding of the mechanism responsible for spatial disorientation in humans and the development of dementia. Ultimately, this network of cells could play an important role in early detection and treating Alzheimer’s disease.

Project Title:

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Chronic Pain: A Telehealth Applicaiton Feasibility Study

Project Principal Investigator/s:
Dr. Kevin Vowles

Funding Agency:
2Morrow, Inc.

Amount Awarded:
15,959

Period of Performance:
11/2017 - 05/2018

Goals and Aims of Study

Chronic pain is common in adults, impacting approximately one in every four adults in the developed world. Despite the documented efficacy, behavioral pain treatment options are not accessible for many individuals, whether due to long clinic wait-lists, geographic availability, provider insurance coverage, time constraints, or presentation of sub-clinical levels of severity of psychosocial symptoms. Telehealth and smartphone application interventions are becoming increasingly available for treatment of a myriad of conditions as a means of increasing access to care and promoting self-management of health care. A review of available smartphone applications for chronic pain management included over two hundred relevant apps, primarily focused on pain education and pain self-management. A lack of inclusion of evidence-based pain management strategies was noted in the review. Development and evaluation of a chronic pain app would offer patients with chronic pain increased accessibility to an evidence-based treatment option for increasing functioning and improving quality of life.

This study is a pilot feasibility trial to examine the acceptability, usability, and technical performance of an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) based telehealth application (“app”) for those with chronic pain.  ACT for chronic pain is a treatment approach with “strong” empirical support according to the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association. The primary goal of ACT in the context of chronic pain treatment is to increase the patient’s engagement in valued and important activities while experiencing pain or discomfort, such that effective action is not dependent on pain intensity. Relatedly, ACT also aims to facilitate more effective responding to difficult or aversive experiences (e.g. persistent pain). ACT has been shown to reliably and significantly reduce pain-related distress, disability, and healthcare usage. 

How this Research Will Benefit Society

Project Title:

Predicting Stimulant Use Relapse using Neuroimaging Techniques

Project Principal Investigator/s:
Michael Maurer

Funding Agency:
National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse

Amount Awarded:
31, 156

Period of Performance:
09/2017 - 08/2019

Goals and Aims of Study

Using the world’s largest forensic database, which includes clinical and neuropsychological measures, electrophysiological measures, functional neuroimaging, and functional network connectivity measures, the primary goal of this project will be to delineate specific risk factors predictive of eventual stimulant use relapse propensity. This will be accomplished by integrating models incorporating logistic and Cox proportional-hazard regressions, and cross-validation machine learning pattern classifiers to predict stimulant use relapse one year after institutional release with an at-risk sample of adult incarcerated offenders.

How this Research Will Benefit Society