ATEC Team Receives Healthy Dose of Grants for Virtual Medical Work

Dr. Zielke and research team
Researchers from the Center for Modeling and Simulation and the Virtual Humans and Synthetic Societies Lab include, (from left), Stephen Rodriguez, Erik DeFries, Sean Lenox, Jacob Keul, Dr. Marjorie Zielke, Nick Orr, Gautham Mathialagan, Dylan Fino, research manager Gary Hardee, Leonard Evans, Djakhangir Zakhidov and Joel Rizzo.

A research team from the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at The University of Texas at Dallas has received two grants — one each from Southwestern Medical Foundation and the National Institutes for Health — to fuel ongoing research into virtual reality-based medical experiences.

The Center for Modeling and Simulation and the Virtual Humans and Synthetic Societies Lab, both led by ATEC professor Dr. Marjorie Zielke, are developing an emotive “Virtual Reality Patient,” or VRP, in conjunction with Southwestern Medical Foundation, that medical students will be able to use to improve their patient communication skills.

The center also has received a clinical trial planning grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore virtual reality-graded exposure therapy for those with chronic back pain.

“Both of these new projects continue to establish the center’s growing presence in the medical simulation space,” Zielke said. “Serious games for health and medicine along with our virtual humans program are both critical research areas that we want to continue to grow and nurture.”

Revolutionizing the Medical Interview with Virtual Reality Patients

virtual reality patients
A visualization of an emotive “virtual reality patient” experience is shown. The project, under development by Dr. Marge Zielke’s research team in the Center for Modeling and Simulation and the Virtual Humans and Synthetic Societies Lab, has received funding from Southwestern Medical Foundation.

Working alongside subject-matter experts at the UT Southwestern Medical Center, Zielke’s team hopes to create a platform that will replicate medical interviews with the help of virtual patients and caregivers.

Zielke said the platform will offer high-quality simulations, known as emotive Virtual Reality Patients, which can exhibit medical symptoms to help medical students improve their verbal and nonverbal communication skills.

The virtual humans will complement other training methods, and ideally possess a lifelike ability to have both a conversation and convey emotion — something Zielke said is particularly important in the interview process, given that patients express some things nonverbally.

“Virtual humans have always been a major focus for the center,” Zielke said. “We’ve been working on this project for quite a while, and we would really like this to be a stake in the ground for developing world-class research on virtual patients in Texas. We are very grateful for this grant from Southwestern Medical Foundation to continue our research track focused on virtual humans here at UT Dallas. We hope to develop one of the first augmented or virtual reality-based conversational digital patients right here in our lab.”

With the $200,000 grant from the foundation, Zielke’s team will first develop a state-of-the-art “natural language interface” capable of responsive and realistic communication, with the team compiling data on body language, facial cues and other physiological information.

Zielke said the center has long been interested in creating virtual robots that can either work in tandem, or in some cases, replace the need for medical mannequins often used in educational scenarios. The advantage of a training simulation is its potential to physically emulate what symptoms the patient is presenting.

Given the lab’s past work on game-based medical simulations featuring stroke patients, Zielke said her team has a rich backlog of data regarding stroke-specific dialogue and symptoms they can use as their first case in this new project.

“From its very beginning, Southwestern Medical Foundation has sought to advance medical knowledge to benefit our community,” said Kathleen Gibson, president and CEO of Southwestern Medical Foundation. “As new methods of advanced learning become available, we want to support those innovations that keep medical education at UT Southwestern at the forefront. This collaboration between UTD and UTSW is an exciting example of such innovation and progress.”

Serious Games for Serious Pain

The center — along with colleagues at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Ohio University and others — also has received a $700,000 grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse to develop a serious game aimed at helping patients with chronic back pain.

Unlike most games, serious games are not designed to entertain but to teach, and they’re used in industries such as defense, education and health care. The game Zielke’s team is developing employs the use of graded exposure therapy, which is a method of reducing physical or psychological impairments through gradual exposure to the source of pain or fear.

Titled VRGE (Virtual Reality Graded Exposure), the game uses graded exposure to allay physical disabilities by promoting engagement in physical activities that might otherwise seem intimidating to patients with back pain.

Zielke said graded exposure therapy has traditionally been delivered in clinical settings, so its ability to help patients at home has been limited. VRGE will use motion-tracking technology, ongoing onboard assessments and motivational rewards within the game to reinforce traditional graded exposure therapy.

This ongoing project also received support from the American Pain Society and the North American Spine Society through Dr. Zina Trost at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2015 and 2016.

Note: The research was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R34DA040954. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.