Mobile Lab Brings Research Studies to Schools

A grant from the Health Resource and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development has funded a new mobile laboratory for the Shriver Center, a division of the University of Massachusetts Medical School that develops research, education, and service programs aimed at improving the quality of life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The new mobile lab will allow researchers to bring the lab different schools they’ve partnered with in recruiting individuals for their research studies. The lab was purchased from a company in Ohio that offers custom services vehicles for specialized uses, including SWAT and medical mobile vehicles.

The mobile lab, called CAMEL (Community Access Mobile Evaluation Laboratory), will be used to study eye tracking movements and EEG scans from children with autism and other developmental disabilities, in the hopes of developing appropriate interventions that will enhance their quality of life. The eye tracking equipment allows researchers to track exactly where an individual’s eye gaze is falling while looking at videos of a human face. This allows researchers to determine which nonverbal cues are being missed. This is especially useful for children on the autism spectrum, who often cannot effectively communicate to the researcher about what they are looking at. EEG scans are used to measure tiny changes in the electrical activity of the brain. This data is useful in evaluating brain activity in people with developmental disabilities. The changes are very minute, so this equipment requires a clean environment without computers and other electrical equipment that could interfere with the readings. Having a mobile lab eliminates the need for researchers to carry fragile equipment and find spaces within the partner schools that are appropriate for the EEG studies.

Before the CAMEL lab was approved, participants either had to travel to the lab, or researchers had to set up lab space at one of their partner schools. “CAMEL can go anywhere – we just need power and parking,” said Teresa Mitchell, assistant professor of psychiatry. “We partner with schools that serve developmentally disabled students, and while many students and their families want to participate in studies that improve outcomes, getting to the Shriver labs in Waltham in the middle of a school and work day is impossible. So now, these families can participate. Now the research facility will come to the children, and the mobile lab will allow them to travel further, and to include a wider variety of subjects in their research studies. CAMEL has allowed researchers to branch out into new communities on the Cape and Rhode Island border. Mitchell hopes to expand the research geographically, and to include a wider variety of subjects from different socio-economic groups as well.

Mobile labs like CAMEL will allow researchers to expand into populations that had previously been unable to participate in research studies. The use of mobile labs could be expanded across the country.

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Laurel Joss About Laurel Joss

Laurel Joss is a freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. She worked as an RDI® Program Certified Consultant and has published articles in Autism Spectrum Quarterly and on her blog www.remediatingautism.blogspot.com. She is a mother to two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum.