Center for BrainHealth’s Young Professionals Group Raises $50,000 for Autism Research

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Think Ahead Group (TAG), the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas’ young professionals group, has awarded $50,000 to help individuals with autism achieve more socially engaged lives and advantageous futures.   

“According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum, “ explained Tandra Allen, M.S., who is the lead clinician on the Center’s social cognition project. “Those diagnosed experience social cognition difficulties, or challenges with communication, social interaction and learning. Through our virtual reality training program, we provide a realistic, safe, no-fail environment to experience situations that are often difficult for those on the autism spectrum.”

Combining proven training methods with the latest in virtual reality face-emotion tracking software, the Center for BrainHealth’s program immerses participants in a virtual city -- complete with a coffee shop, apartment complex, movie theatre, grocery store, office building, playground, basketball court and school. Research utilizing the program shows documented improvements in recognizing emotions, understanding the intentions of others, and being able to respond appropriately in various social situations including job interviews, academic settings, and dating.

“Video games are fun, and this is therapy disguised as a high-tech game with state-of-the-art graphics, real-time face tracking and personalized avatars. Participants don’t realize that while they are having fun, their brains are changing to positively affect future real-world scenarios,” said Carl Lutz, head of Center for BrainHealth’s Virtual Reality Lab.

Until recently the program was only available to those research participants who were able to come to the Center for BrainHealth or visit the Child Study Center at Yale University Yale School of Medicine who is collaborating with the team at the Center.

TAG’s funding will support the development and expansion of the current program to a wider, in-home audience. The grant will allow Center for BrainHealth clinicians to provide remote training opportunities via laptops that have been outfitted with the virtual reality program. The funds will also supply portable technology components, such as a web-cam, that will be shipped to participants and mailed back with the laptop when the training is complete.

“With this gift, we will be able to reach those who cannot physically visit the Center for BrainHealth but who can still be positively impacted by this virtual environment,” said Allen. “We have seen so many inspiring success stories with those who have completed the 10-session program at the Center, but it has been heartbreaking to have to turn away people due to geographic limitations. Now we will be able to reach many more people of all ages on the autism spectrum.”

“As young professionals in Dallas, we are keenly aware that brain health affects everyone and every generation,” said TAG president, Dan Harris. “We are very proud to be able to reach diverse populations through the Center for BrainHealth’s life-changing programs. This year we are focusing on individuals with autism, but in previous years, grants have supported initiatives for military veterans as well as older adults facing mild cognitive impairment.”  

Since TAG’s inception in 2009, the group has raised more than $360,000 in support of Center for BrainHealth research. The majority of funds are amassed via their annual Kentucky Derby Party, which was chaired this year by Katie Bivins and Halley Homen and sponsored by Sewell Automotive Companies. About 300 people attended the benefit held on May 3 at Dallas Arboretum’s DeGolyer Mansion.

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