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Virtual Reality Coupled with EEG for Autism

Man in virtual reality headset

(PublicDomainPNG, Pixabay)

22 Mar. 2019. An engineering-psychology team is developing a system connecting virtual reality with brain signals in real time to improve clinical treatments for autism spectrum disorder. The 5-year initiative at University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania is funded by a $550,000 grant from National Science Foundation.

The Pittsburgh researchers led by electrical and computer engineering professor Murat Akcakaya are seeking better treatment options and technologies for people with autism spectrum disorder. Autism spectrum disorder is a collection of neurodevelopmental conditions marked by communication difficulties and impaired social interaction, as well as repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Some 1 in 59 children in the U.S. have autism spectrum disorder, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with males 4 times more likely to have the disorder than females. Classic autism is considered the most severe form of the syndrome.

Akcakaya and colleagues, including psychiatry and psychology professor Carla Mazefsky, are studying ways to enhance traditional behavioral therapies for autism spectrum disorder with electroencephalography or EEG, a non-invasive technique that detects and measures electrical signals in the brain in real time. Based on those signals, people with autism spectrum disorder would view immersive virtual reality or augmented reality scenarios that complement their behavioral treatments.

The Pittsburgh researchers are writing scenarios for these virtual or augmented-reality sessions to decrease depression and anxiety, problematic behaviors including aggression in social interactions, and functional impairment in typical settings such as school, work, or home. The scenarios will offer audio and visual cues to help handle theses stresses, when indicated from EEG signals. In a university statement, Akcakaya calls the proposed technology, “a closed-loop system that will help patients better learn how to recognize emotional triggers and respond with appropriate techniques generalizing the effects of clinical treatment strategies to real-life activities.”

The clinical treatment strategies are outlined in a treatment program called Emotional Awareness and Skills Enhancement, or EASE, created by Mazefsky and colleagues at Pittsburgh. The EASE program aims to reduce emotion regulation impairment and behavioral disturbances with mindfulness training. “EASE emphasizes awareness of one’s own emotional responses as a foundational skill,” adds Mazefsky, “that promotes the ability to manage intense negative emotions, which is taught through mindful awareness.” The program is being tested in a clinical trial among 100 teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder in Pittsburgh and University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The connection of virtual reality in real time to EEG signals is a new approach to therapy for autism spectrum disorder, and the project is expected to provide novel insights into using these technologies to regulate emotions. The team also expects to use the data generated by their project to write machine learning algorithms that help researchers and clinicians better understand links between EEG signals and emotions, leading to better detection of distress in people with autism spectrum disorder and larger populations.

Akcakaya notes that, “machine learning based on biological responses could also be integrated in to the existing technologically driven intervention techniques targeting patients across the autism spectrum.” He says the process could eventually be incorporated into wearable devices like a smart watch or glasses. As Science & Enterprise reported in August 2018, a team at Stanford University is also thinking in that direction, adapting Google Glass, machine learning, and a smartphone app to reduce autism-related behaviors.

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