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Pushing the Limits with Dawn Neumann


When I sat down to interview Dawn Neumann, PhD, over tea, her presence immediately put me at ease; I felt like I was sitting on a sofa in my best friend’s living room. Dr. Neumann, associate professor at Indiana University School of Medicine and director of research at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana, is familiar with the comforts that come with understanding emotions.

A few years ago, Dr. Neumann helped launch IU School of Medicine’s Interactive and Functional Assessment of Communication and Emotion (InterFACE) Center. The InterFace Center develops medical treatments for individuals with neurological, psychological and developmental disorders by pinpointing issues underlying the behavioral deficits experienced by these populations.

The current approaches for assessing emotional functioning in patients suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI) —or other populations with emotional disorders—are limited by the information that can be gleaned. Typical approaches for investigating patient emotions and behaviors involve in-depth interviews with a patient and his or her family.

“The problem with these [assessment methods] is that when you’re dealing with people with brain injury, it’s characteristic for them to have a lack of insight into their emotions or behavior,” said Dr. Neumann. “Family members are often comparing the patients to the people they used to be before the TBI event, instead of recognizing them for the people they are now, post-TBI. Unfortunately, this methodology lacks insight into the underlying cause of the problem. These methods do not move treatment forward, and ultimately can lead to treatments that are not very effective. Unresolved emotional problems can prevent patients from achieving goals and can cause them to return to old routines.”

Charting new territory in personalized medicine

The InterFACE Center’s lab is unique because it uses multiple tools simultaneously for a more comprehensive and less subjective assessment than typical approaches. “The beauty in what we’re doing is that it’s all synchronized,” said Dr. Neumann. The InterFACE Center’s lab, which uses a cozy, living room design to put participants at ease, is equipped with high-definition cameras and microphones mounted on the wall that observe and record participants’ behaviors and interpersonal interactions. The lab also monitors participants with advanced eye tracking, wireless biometrics and virtual reality systems.

When Dr. Neumann originally approached software vendors to assist in synchronizing multiple systems, a common response she received was, “we don’t know how to achieve this because no one’s pushed the limits that far.” Since the center’s debut, Dr. Neumann and her colleagues have continued to push the limits with the goal of having a one-of-a-kind facility that has the capacity for personalized medicine. “Everyone’s brain injury is unique, so why not understand the triggers and emotional deficits specific to each individual’s injury and emotional functioning,” Dr. Neumann said.

The InterFACE Center also makes it easier to understand why some individuals with a brain injury may have difficulty with their emotions by allowing experts to study multiple perspectives and types of analysis. For example, when a participant becomes irritated, researchers can see the video recording, eye tracking and biometrics data during the participant’s response. This process allows Dr. Neumann and her colleagues to better identify what interpersonal and environmental factors play into emotions without having to rely solely on subjective reports.

The insights the InterFACE Center makes possible may help participants to better identify their feelings and take steps toward recovery. The knowledge learned from this center will be translated to clinical practice with the ultimate goal of enhancing patient education and care.

What’s next for the center?

During the interview, Dawn leaned forward in her chair and slid her phone across the coffee table. The screen read “My Emotional Compass.” As she took a final sip of her tea, Dr. Neumann nodded her head when I asked her if she’s working on an app. “It’s about time people have a tool to help them navigate and label their emotions, as these skills are critical to emotional control, yet a challenge for so many,” Dr. Neumann said.

Tune in soon to learn more about the Compass app and how the InterFACE Center is continuously pushing the limits in personalized medicine.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Sonder Collins

Communications Coordinator

Having joined IU School of Medicine in 2016, Sonder uses a poetry and theatre background to help bridge the academic world with the creative. A graduate of University of Evansville, he works with faculty and academic staff to formulate unique, marketing ideas that engage the public with innovative research at IU School of Medicine. From writing stories on groundbreaking equipment to orchestrating digital marketing strategies, Sonder collaborates with experts across the school to help departments thrive in their marketing and communication ambitions.