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USC Chan scientist using neuroimaging to advance autism research →

Apr 8, 2016, by Mike McNulty, in General News, Alumni News

Stefanie Bodison ’92, MA ’93, OTD ’10 is the latest in a long line of USC experts, stretching back more than 50 years to former USC faculty emeritus A. Jean Ayres ’45, MA ’54 and her landmark theory of sensory integration, seeking to better understand the relationships between sensory information and children’s neurological capacity for effectively using that sensory “input” for “output” movements and behaviors.

But unlike a previous generation, not only is Bodison armed with state-of-the-art neuroimaging technologies that provide measurable views of the brain and body at work, she also has grant funding to help her realize her mission.

A research assistant professor at the USC Chan Division, Bodison is using various brain imaging techniques including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the structural and functional connectivity of sensorimotor integration — the term describing the brain’s ability to transform sensory information into a motor response — in both typically developing children and those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Because this complex process is dependent upon one’s ability to copy or imitate the movements of others, the latest phase of Bodison’s project, entitled “Investigation of the Neural Mechanisms of Sensorimotor Integration,” uses fMRI to examine the neural processes occurring during both hand gesture imitations and simple motor response tasks.

While positioned within the fMRI scanner, ten participants — 6-to-8-year-old, right-handed boys, six of whom have a diagnosis of ASD and four of whom are typically developing — were asked to imitate complex, meaningless hand gestures displayed on-screen and also to make either a simple “thumbs-up” sign or “number-one” sign with their hands in response to directional arrow cues displayed on-screen.

The fMRI images from this small sample suggest that, for children with ASD, a simple motor task requires the same extensive degree of motor planning as does the imitation of a complex, meaningless gesture. This suggests that the sensorimotor integration pathways in the autistic brain may contribute to the difficulties demonstrated by children with autism when learning new tasks requiring imitation of others.

This pilot study also demonstrates a new paradigm for the capability of fMRI to measure the neural substrates of sensorimotor integration in the brain.

“Our research team has shown that we can successfully acquire MRI scans in six-to-nine-year-old children with autism,” said Bodison, “which is significant because most of the current MRI research in autism is happening with individuals who are 12 years and older.”

Bodison is supported by a KL2 Mentoring Research Career Development Award, the National Institute of Health’s grant program designed to jump-start the research careers of junior scientists. As part of the KL2 program, Bodison’s designated mentors including Elizabeth Sowell, professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; Terence D. Sanger, provost associate professor of biomedical engineering, neurology and biokinesiology; Florence Clark, associate dean, chair and Mrs. T.H. Chan Professor of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the USC Chan Division; and Stewart Mostofsky, director of the Center for Neurodevelopmental Medicine and Research at Kennedy Krieger Institute located in Baltimore.

The Help Group – USC Occupational Science Initiative heads to the museum with upcoming project →

Mar 21, 2016, by Mike McNulty, in General News

The Help Group – USC Occupational Science Initiative has announced its next project to develop opportunities for advancing community-based social participation for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Under the direction of Mary Lawlor, associate chair of research and professor at the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, this pilot program is implementing a science and social participation curriculum in classrooms at The Help Group’s Village Glen School and during outings at the California Science Center, an experiential science museum located in Exposition Park adjacent to the USC University Park Campus in Los Angeles.

The science and social skills curriculum is based upon the educational and therapeutic goals of students with autism and other special needs in the fourth through sixth grades. Lawlor is coordinating a team of USC occupational therapy faculty, graduate students and practitioners, in collaboration with Help Group educators and occupational therapy staff, to lead The Help Group students in a series of field trips to the California Science Center throughout the spring months. These trips are specifically structured to optimize the students’ social interactions in a museum setting, as well as to help them better access their respective grade-level science curricula.

“We are delighted to be collaborating with The Help Group and California Science Center in developing, implementing and appraising an innovative approach to learning through exploring new frontiers in science and enhancing social participation, both for students at USC and students at The Help Group,” Lawlor said.

This project is a replication of an original program designed by Ellen Cohn, clinical professor at the Department of Occupational Therapy at Boston University in collaboration with the Boston Public Schools and the Museum of Science in Boston. The program was designed to support students impacted by autism spectrum disorders to engage in informal science learning, socially interact with each other and with educators, and feel included in a community setting.

Assisting Lawlor is USC’s Emily Ochi, assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy; Jesús Díaz, assistant research professor; Monica Stephens, Occupational Therapy Doctorate resident; and Jenny Kovacs, postdoctoral fellow.

“Our graduate students at USC are excited by this remarkable opportunity to work directly with students at The Help Group to foster science learning and facilitate engagement and community participation through the field trips to the California Science Center,” Ochi said.

“It’s university partnerships, like this initiative with USC, that inform best practice methods in our classrooms and keep us at the cutting edge of evidence-based interventions,” said Dr. Barbara Firestone, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Help Group. “We are proud to continue to expand this partnership with the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.”

The Help Group – USC Occupational Science Initiative, formed in 2015, is dedicated to developing evidence-based intervention programs for children with autism spectrum disorder through the guidance of an interdisciplinary team of researchers, educators and clinicians.

A previous example of the initiative’s programming includes the integration of animal-assisted interventions into the classrooms at The Help Group’s five autism schools in order to help meet the educational and therapeutic needs of students. Leading the effort in animal-assisted intervention is Dr. Olga Solomon, assistant professor at the USC Chan Division.

Fariborz Maseeh to keynote 2016 commencement →

Mar 14, 2016, by Mike McNulty, in General News, Student News

Fariborz Maseeh will be the keynote speaker at the USC Chan Division’s 74th commencement ceremony on Friday, May 13.

Maseeh is founder and managing principal of Picoco LLC, an investment management firm that manages various assets and funds, and the sole founder and president of The Massiah Foundation, a charitable organization investing in transformational situations for broad public benefit.

A renowned expert in the field of micro-electro-mechanical systems, Maseeh founded IntelliSense in 1991 with the goal of reducing time and expense when creating next-generation micro-scale devices. Under his leadership, IntelliSense created the first custom design, development and manufacturing operation and became one of the world’s fastest-growing companies.

Maseeh holds more than 60 scientific publications in business strategy, fabrication technologies and design of software for micro-scale devices, and he has authored many patents and trademarks. He has given numerous invited talks at various organizations on science, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. In 2008, Maseeh founded Kids Institute for Development and Advancement, an integrated center of excellence for the treatment of children with autism serving families in Orange County. KIDA offers education, therapy and social skills under one roof at its state-of-the-art facility.

After earning his bachelor of science degree in engineering with honors and master’s degree in applied mathematics from Portland State University, Maseeh earned a master of science degree in engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a doctorate of science in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Today he serves as a board member of the MIT Corporation, is the chair of MIT’s Sponsored Research visiting committee, and is a member of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Brain and Cognitive Sciences visiting committees. He is a member of the Board of Fellows at Harvard Medical School, and a council member of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Could virtual reality neurofeedback help stroke survivors recover? →

Jan 28, 2016, by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), in General News

USC researcher Sook-Lei Liew awarded two-year American Heart Association Innovative Research Grant to find out.


Imagine wanting to take a sip of your morning latte.

To accomplish this task, your brain will send a signal that will pass from neuron to neuron all the way down your arm to your hand to your fingers, which will grasp the latte, bring it to your lips and, ah, frothy, caffeinated goodness.

When someone suffers a stroke, the brain is damaged, and many of the neurons needed to control movement can be either damaged or missing altogether, making it difficult or impossible to move their limbs.

While traditional therapies might focus on having the patient practice moving their arms, hands and fingers to reactivate damaged neural pathways, this can be a nonstarter for someone with severe motor impairment who can’t move at all.

A better treatment might lie inside a VR headset, according to USC researcher Sook-Lei Liew, who was just awarded a $150,000 Innovative Research Grant from the American Heart Association to explore the possibility of using the immersive world of virtual reality to create a brain-computer interface to treat stroke survivors.

“To regain movement ability after a stroke, survivors need to strengthen pathways from the brain to the muscles of the hand,” Liew explained. “This is difficult for people with severe motor impairments because they can’t see their hand move when they try to move it.”

To give stroke survivors the necessary visual feedback, Liew developed REINVENT — “Rehabilitation Environment using the Integration of Neuromuscular-based Virtual Enhancements for Neural Training” — which uses virtual reality as well as brain and muscle sensors to show hand movement in the virtual world when the patient has used the correct brain and muscle signals even if the patient cannot move his or her hand in the real world.

“Our long-term goal would be for patients with severe motor impairment after stroke to be able to use REINVENT immediately after their stroke, in their hospital rooms in between therapy sessions and even when discharged home if they are still experiencing motor impairments,” Liew said.

She added that even more importantly than being innovative, REINVENT is both portable and cost-effective, which could lead to more widespread adoption if successful.

“REINVENT and other portable home programs allow the patients to augment traditional therapy with additional practice by themselves in a motivating environment even if they have little to no movement.”

The American Heart Association Innovative Grant began this month and will fund Liew’s REINVENT research through the end of 2017.

Liew is an assistant professor with joint appointments at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy and in the neurology department at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

She joined the USC faculty in January 2015 and runs the Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory, which focuses on helping stroke survivors recover.

Who knew medical records had a ‘social life’? →

Jan 13, 2016, by Mike McNulty, in General News

Two USC researchers show how paper records impact interactions with health care practitioners

Also published at USC News

Paper medical recordsFor more than a decade, electronic health records have been hailed as a means of improving health care quality, safety and efficiency. Yet in spite of the ongoing transition to electronic records throughout America’s health care system, two USC researchers are interested in their traditional hard-copy format and the value, if underappreciated, they still hold.

Occupational science doctorate candidate Amber Angell and her mentor, Assistant Professor Olga Solomon, of the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy examined data from Solomon’s multidisciplinary urban ethnographic study, “Autism in Urban Context,” funded by the National Institute for Mental Health.

For approximately three years, Solomon and her research team followed 23 African American families with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder living in Los Angeles County — interviewing, observing and video-recording them in their homes, in doctor’s offices, in their children’s schools and out in the community.

The researchers asked nuanced questions about how the families, who face persistent disparities in autism diagnosis and interventions, used their child’s health records when seeking and acquiring autism services, how the records impacted their interactions with health care practitioners and how the records affected the families’ own meanings and experiences.

Angell and Solomon discovered what they subsequently termed the “social life” of paper records — the ways in which records are not strictly confined to medical contexts but instead literally traveled in cars, buses, bags and backpacks into homes, schools, clinics and throughout the community. For example, parents brought thick, chronologically ordered binders filled with records and documents to meetings in schools and doctor’s offices, often as a way of validating their own knowledge and expertise to professionals.

Angell and Solomon also learned how the subtleties of written descriptions in records can have consequences beyond the delivery of care. Descriptions of parents’ employment status, for example, positively or negatively influenced clinicians’ perceptions of them. For parents actively trying to project a “good parenting” persona, that task became more or less difficult simply because of descriptions in medical records.

Until recently, clinicians haven’t had to think much about how patients or families might feel about what’s written in their records.
Amber Angell

The researchers’ findings were published in a Social Science & Medicine article which, in December, received the 2015 Diana Forsythe Award from the American Medical Informatics Association. The winning article, “The Social Life of Health Records: Understanding Families’ Experiences of Autism,” was selected as a co-recipient from more than 30 other nominations. The award is named in memory of Forsythe, a pioneer of medical informatics — the interdisciplinary field of how data is used and managed in biomedical research, clinical care and public health.

The USC researchers insist that recognizing the “social life” of health records, regardless of digital or analog formats, is critical for improving family–practitioner relationships.

“Until recently, clinicians haven’t had to think much about how patients or families might feel about what’s written in their records,” Angell said. “Now, as electronic health records are changing how patients and families engage with their records, this is something for clinicians to take into consideration.”

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