NHRC Scientists Receive Outstanding Achievement Award

Retired Rear. Adm. James Robb (far left), president of the National Training and Simulation Association presents the Modeling & Simulation Cross-Function award to the Naval Health Research Center's PhyCORE (left to right: Lt.  Brennan Cox, Dr. Pinata Sessoms, Cmdr. Jose Dominguez) team for work done to enhance and expand a virtual reality tool designed to rehabilitate injured warfighters into one that also promotes injury prevention and resilience.

Retired Rear. Adm. James Robb (far left), president of the National Training and Simulation Association presents the Modeling & Simulation Cross-Function award to the Naval Health Research Center’s PhyCORE (left to right: Lt. Brennan Cox, Dr. Pinata Sessoms, Cmdr. Jose Dominguez) team for work done to enhance and expand a virtual reality tool designed to rehabilitate injured warfighters into one that also promotes injury prevention and resilience.

Story courtesy Naval Health Research Center Public Affairs

Scientists from the Naval Health Research Center (NHRC) recently received the Outstanding Achievement in Modeling and Simulation (Cross-Function) award at the National Training and Simulation Association’s (NTSA), Dec. 1, 2015.

NHRC’s Physiological and Cognitive Operational Research Environment (PhyCORE) team was honored for their work in expanding a virtual reality walking and balance-based rehabilitation tool for injured warfighters into one now capable of promoting injury prevention and resilience.

“This award is well-deserved,” said Capt. Rita Simmons, commanding officer of NHRC. “The PhyCORE team embodies the professionalism, expertise, and collaborative spirit that can be found in each of our researchers. This recognition also spotlights the type of innovative work that goes on every day at NHRC and how we are uniquely positioned with cutting-edge tools and seasoned experts to do some exciting and ground-breaking work.”

The tool, the Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN), was installed at NHRC in 2008 and originally used for rehabilitation research to support the recovery of combat-injured service members, particularly those with lower-limb amputations and traumatic brain injuries (TBI). The CAREN’s initial configuration incorporated a 6-degree of freedom motion platform with integrated instrumented treadmill, multiple motion capture cameras, and a large curved screen with 180-degree projection creating a virtual environment mirroring real-world situations.

“Over the last three years, my team has enhanced the CAREN’s capabilities with a programmable scent system, 3-dimensional projection and environments, improved surround sound system, accurate laser shooting system, and a high performance treadmill capable of high accelerations for simulating trips,” said Pinata Sessoms, Ph.D., senior biomedical engineer with NHRC’s PhyCORE team.

Additional improvements include a unique driving cab developed in-house by NHRC scientists that can be placed on the CAREN platform. Service members are challenged as they drive through customizable simulated driving scenarios to assess awareness, speed infractions, driving violations, and other errors.

The PhyCORE team designed additional performance measurement tools and incorporated them into the CAREN allowing researchers and clinicians a host of different quantitative physiological measures to support the recovery and rehabilitation of injured service members. These include surface electromyography (sEMG) for measuring muscle activation and fatigue, eye-tracking and gaze-tracking for attention and symptom measurement in patients with TBI, and mobile electroencephalography (EEG) systems to measure increased cognitive workload and differences in brain activity while service members perform different tasks.

“The PhyCORE team has invested over 1,000 hours of clinical investigation and therapy, treating over 100 patients within the virtual environment,” said Sessoms. “We work closely with our collaborators at the Naval Medical Center San Diego to treat our wounded warriors and our research has led to improved therapies and capabilities such as walking, balancing, and cognitive performance that allow injured service members to return to their daily activities and, in many cases, full function. The work we’ve done to expand the CAREN system beyond its original configuration was actually the genesis of what we now call the Physiological and Cognitive Operational Research Environment, or PhyCORE.”

Part of what led to the PhyCORE team’s success in expanding the CAREN’s capabilities and furthering of their research is the interdisciplinary nature of the team. The group of researchers and clinicians includes physical therapists, kinesiologists, biomechanists, biomedical engineers, software and hardware engineers, sleep physiologists, an aerospace experimental psychologist, and a neurophysiologist.

Due to the enhancements the team developed for the CAREN, it is now much more than a rehabilitation tool—it can also measure the physical performance of service members using operator-specific tasks. The CAREN is now ideal for testing the effects of new protective gear, carriage loads, and equipment on warfighter performance.

“The use of one system for so many different capacities maximizes the resources of the Navy and has led to the creation of a multi-faceted team of experts who can study multiple performance metrics at one time, in one place,” said Sessoms. “For example, instead of just measuring cognitive load, fatigue, or movement, we can measure the correlation between each of these factors. We’ve created a tool that isn’t just for rehabilitation—it’s now capable of promoting injury prevention and resilience.”

The PhyCORE team shares information with other Department of Defense CAREN sites to promote best practices, collaboration, and cost savings.

As the DoD’s premier deployment health research center, NHRC’s cutting-edge research and development is used to optimize the operational health and readiness of the nation’s armed forces. In proximity to more than 95,000 active duty service members, world-class universities, and industry partners, NHRC sets the standard in joint ventures, innovation, and translational research.