UNMC/Nebraska Medicine launches Mind and Brain Health Labs

November 02, 2015

Image with caption: Marv Welstead, a 94-year-old Fremont, Neb. man, drives the SENSEI simulator.

Marv Welstead, a 94-year-old Fremont, Neb. man, drives the SENSEI simulator.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center and its clinical partner, Nebraska Medicine, announced today the creation of the Mind and Brain Health Labs (MBHL).

The labs are a linchpin of a broader Mind and Brain Health Initiative to further establish UNMC/Nebraska Medicine as a national and global force in the neurological sciences - neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, psychology, anesthesia pain management and spine - providing the highest quality care across the lifespan, said Matthew Rizzo, M.D., professor and chair of the UNMC Department of Neurological Sciences and lead physician in the neuroscience service line.

Located on the first and second floors of the Clarkson Doctors Office Building North at 44th and Farnam streets, the labs support a suite of advanced research tools including driving simulation and real-world data recording systems unlike those in any other medical institution, Dr. Rizzo said. These include: 

  • A large high-fidelity driving simulator featuring a real full-sized automobile and an ultra high definition wrap-around visual display with better resolution than the human retina. Named SENSEI (Simulator for Ergonomics, Neuroscience, Safety Engineering and Innovation), the simulator will be used for multidisciplinary research studies with collaborators across UNMC and the University of Nebraska system. 
  • A smaller advanced clinical driving simulator that fits in an exam room and will be used to help diagnose functional deficits and aid patients in their recoveries. Named PARSEC (Performance and Rehabilitation Simulator for Embodied Cognition), this simulator will aid in the care of patients with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis and peripheral neuropathy. Another simulator named SENSE (Simulator for Ergonomics Neuroscience and Scenario Engineering) is being used to program virtual environments and scenarios for testing drivers on the other simulators. 
  • An instrumented vehicle called VENUS (Vehicle for Ergonomics, NeUroscience and Safety) that can be used to test research subjects in actual on-road driving experiences. 
  • Special "black box" data recorders are being built and deployed by the MBHL. They can be placed in a driver’s own vehicle to test driving behavior in the real world, providing many years of continuous data collection and a treasure trove for health researchers around the world. 

"We aim to immerse people in a realistic environment with all cylinders running," Dr. Rizzo said. "The simulators provide realistic challenges to assess critical aspects of human performance and cognition - attention, decision making and memory all at once, under pressure of time. We can learn a lot about driver safety and risk, and nobody gets hurt.

 "The VENUS and the black boxes provide ‘ground truth’ on how patients actually behave in the real world, outside of the laboratory. They provide a comparison and reality check for the simulator and a source of data to triangulate on our patients’ performance and health. We can assess the errors people make and how they relate to our patients’ conditions.

"Results with these tools will shed light on our patients’ brain health and functional abilities and how they match up with people of the same age without neurological disorders."

The simulators, in combination with the VENUS, the black boxes and other tools and technologies, will allow UNMC/Nebraska Medicine to study the effect on performance and mobility of many neurological, medical and surgical conditions, as well as effects of sleep deprivation, shift work, and medications.

"We will be able to study effects of drugs after they are released and whether they are working as intended over the long term," said Dr. Rizzo, who was recruited to UNMC last year from the University of Iowa, where he implemented similar, earlier generation simulation and mobile behavior tracking tools.

"Our goal is to advance neurosciences research, care and education across the region, the university system, and the nation," he said.

The initiative will bolster research, education and community outreach efforts in behavioral health, movement disorders, neuromuscular diseases, caregiver support and neurotechnology.

The initiative is committed to improving the health of all Nebraskans, Dr. Rizzo said, by working with hospitals across the state and region to provide greater outreach to rural and underserved populations. It will emphasize building hospital to home continuity of care, including aging in place.

Start-up support for the simulator and instrumented vehicle came from a $1 million grant from the Nebraska Research Initiative.

Dr. Rizzo said he hopes to further advance a world-class Mind and Brain Health program by:

  • Recruiting and retaining outstanding faculty to educate the next generation of neuroscientists;
  • Attracting top notch residents and students to the institution;
  • Constructing excellent facilities to support the research, educational and patient needs of the department; and
  • Building on research collaborations with visiting professors and eminent scientists and clinicians across the nation and worldwide. 

For more information on the Mind and Brain Health Labs, please call 402-559-6870 or email mbhl@unmc.edu.

We are Nebraska Medicine and UNMC. Our mission is to lead the world in transforming lives to create a healthy future for all individuals and communities through premier educational programs, innovative research and extraordinary patient care.

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