A $4.5 million federal grant will allow U-M researchers to study how technology — including apps for smartphones and tablets, cloud devices and a U-M-developed video game — may help young adults with spinal cord dysfunction and neurodevelopmental disabilities improve health and become more independent.
The five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research will help launch the new U-M Rehabilitation Engineering and Research Center, Technology Increasing Knowledge, Technology Optimizing Choices.
The center will involve researchers and clinicians from U-M’s departments of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Internal Medicine, College of Engineering, College of Pharmacy, School of Public Health and the School of Information.
For youth with disabilities, limitations in daily activities, such as schoolwork and moving around, increase their risk of unemployment, social isolation, financial dependence and lack of education access. They are also more likely to experience future health complications stemming from the challenges of maintaining their own health.
Researchers will explore how technology such as mobile devices and video games, already familiar to younger groups, can be used to implement innovative types of support, reminders and motivation for young adults with spina bifida, cerebral palsy and other disabilities.
These new tools will leverage research in artificial intelligence and cognitive science to help adolescents and young adults develop skills ranging from self-administration of medication and emptying bladders through a catheter to managing stressful social situations and being motivated to pursue personal life goals.
“These youth are not only transitioning from childhood to the responsibilities of adult living but also face other obstacles from their injury or disability that makes this a critical period for developing skills they need to be independent,” says Rehabilitation Engineering and Research Center Director Michelle Meade, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation.
“We are using a medium we know this age group accepts and embraces as a way to implement self-management programs to set them up for success. There are some things you physically can’t fix but there are so many things you can do to improve quality of life. Our job is to keep seeking innovative tools that will help these youth lead productive lives.”
As part of the center, Meade will lead a clinical trial next year that explores how SCI HARD — a downloadable app developed at U-M for mobile gaming devices that can be played using anything from hands to a mouth stick — may improve health behaviors among adolescents with spinal cord dysfunction.
In the first level of SCI HARD, players wake up in rehab, learning they have a spinal cord injury. From there, the game involves trips to doctor’s offices, therapy to build muscle, and tasks such as renewing prescriptions and learning to drive an accessible car. Other challenges include managing rowdy club goers during a night out with friends, hosting an unexpected party, and defeating an evil imposter-psychologist named Dr. Schrync.
Within the game, players have to learn how to interact with other people, and how to get information they need in order to progress and eventually save the world.
Other projects funded by the grant include developing apps and other tools that can help clients report daily activities and track trends over time via smartphones and other mobile devices. Another project supports the development of a cloud-based mobile system — the Spinal Cord Injury Living and Learning System — that provides a virtual coaching program to motivate people to follow through on self-care.
“Adolescents taking on increased self-management responsibilities will typically lack the life experience needed for anticipating, recognizing and overcoming regular life obstacles, and these challenges may be magnified during an age when they are transitioning from dependence on parental care,” says Edmund Durfee, co-director of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Research Center and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science.
“Technology offers new opportunities to develop and implement strategies that can be incorporated into health care practice and improve the lives of individuals with disabilities.”
All projects led by the new center are designed for easy transfer to the marketplace.
“Technology is unleashing the potential of people who have specific impairments,” says Seth Warschausky, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation. “People want to work, they want to have a social life, and they want to be involved in their community. Technologies are allowing people to do more things to live a typical life but people often need strong support to do so.”