Occupational therapist Barbara Schupak, PhD '14, a recent graduate of the Health Sciences doctoral program in the Department of Interprofessional Health Sciences and Health Administration, faced a challenge in her clinic. Parents would say, "My child cannot tolerate most clothing. He'll only wear something soft without tags." Other children were sensitive to light or sound.
Schupak suspected they couldn't process sensory stimuli properly, overwhelming their nervous systems — but she had no way to measure it. Without a diagnosis, such as autism, some children couldn't get needed services, she says.
At the School of Health and Medical Sciences' (SHMS) Functional Human Performance Laboratory on campus, Schupak investigated a technique for measuring their discomfort. Her study measured how a group of boys, some with Autism Spectrum Disorder and some without, respond to sensory stimuli — a strobe light, a siren, a feather's touch. Skin electrodes collect data, sending it to a monitor. "I'm looking at the electrodermal response controlled by the sympathetic nervous system — the fight-or-flight system that goes off when we're startled," Schupak explains. The PsyLab Stand Alone Monitoring system by Contact Precision Instruments, which uses the PsyLab 7 analysis software, produces waveform patterns that ebb and flow with the subject's electrodermal response and then converts those waves into numbers in an Excel sheet for her further analysis.
The Lab's leading-edge equipment also includes sophisticated computerized tools to evaluate how the body moves during walking. For students learning to conduct research on gait, the variety of equipment allows for the exploration of clinically important questions about human motion. Doctoral candidate Lynn Curtis-Vinegra notes: "As we get older, we have significant changes to our muscles and movement patterns, resulting in walking and balance issues. Physical therapists need to understand how older adults adjust their bodies to compensate."
The participants in Curtis-Vinegra's research study wore electrodes to capture electromyography (EMG) data about how key leg muscles contract as the subjects took three initial steps across a computerized mat that provides information about footfall placement. Curtis-Vinegra designed her study after learning in class how to use the Lab's wireless Noraxon EMG system and the Qualisys motion-capture system, which uses high-speed infrared cameras to record human movement. With a portable Biometrics EMG unit, she can determine "how eight muscles work during walking, and then visualize their electrical activity on beautiful graphs."
Schupak's and Curtis-Vinegra's research provides greater insights for clinical practice. Schupak says, "I want to get the information out to the medical community."
This story originally appeared in the 2013 issue of Insights magazine, published annually by the School of Health and Medical Sciences. Read the rest of the magazine here.
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