Brock professor's research helps brain-injured patients relearn emotions

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Brock professor's research helps brain-injured patients relearn emotions

Feb. 10, 2009

Barbra Zupan is showing a man in her office photographs depicting facial expressions. She asks him to identify how the person in the photograph feels. After concentrating for several seconds on a face that clearly depicts an angry expression, he hesitantly says "happy?"

Zupan, an Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at Brock University and a Speech and Language Pathologist, was pilot testing a computer-based diagnostic and treatment program she had developed with colleagues from the University of Buffalo and Carolinas Medical Centre, for brain-injured adults to help them regain their emotional lives.

The man working with Zupan had sustained a traumatic brain injury a few years prior and his wife was struggling to understand why he still did not appear to recognize or care how she was feeling.

"She was hurt that he never thought to ask 'How was your day?' and didn't seem to care if she had obviously had a very frustrating or upsetting day at work", says Zupan. While observing her husband taking the test, the woman was shocked that he was unable to identify the emotions in the photos. "She didn't realize that her husband wasn't recognizing his own emotions, and so couldn't recognize emotions in others," Zupan recounts. "Instead, he sees an expression that appears confused".

Persons without brain injury easily can distinguish frightened from annoyed, or disappointed from gleeful. But when a sad, or angry, or surprised face appeared on the screen, the woman's husband saw only "confused".

Interpreting and expressing emotion are defining characteristics of being human. The psychiatric rehabilitation community confirmed in recent years that as many as 50 per cent of brain injured patients had lost this ability. In the past, people with brain injury who reacted inappropriately, such as joking at a funeral, or did not react at all, were considered to have behavior problems. This capacity to understand and respond to emotions now is known as affect recognition.

Based on promising pilot-study results, Zupan, along with a team of researchers from three different countries, has received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research to carry out a three-year controlled trial of a treatment program.

Zupan has partnered with Brain Injury Community Re-Entry (BICR), a St. Catharines-based non-profit organization that provides support services to people with brain injury. She will be working closely with Dr. John Davis, the psychologist and clinical director at BICR, and co-investigator for the Brock site. Recruitment is currently underway through the University and all research sessions will occur at BICR. Dr. Dawn Neumann of Carolinas Healthcare System in Charlotte, N.C. and Dr. Duncan Babbage of Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand are also currently recruiting participants for this study.

The international study is examining two different approaches to relearning emotion recognition. One approach focuses on specific elements of the face. The second approach teaches people to infer emotions. The program uses short stories to teach what a person is likely to be feeling in various situations.