Drawing a blank: Helping brain injury victims tell happy from sad

Certain head injuries make people lose the ability to read facial cues. Research from AUT's Centre for eHealth is helping them get it back

People who’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) due to a fall, vehicle accident or assault, for example, sometimes lose the ability to read facial expressions. The result: they may not always respond appropriately during social interactions.

In line with AUT University’s aim to translate health research into practical use, Dr Duncan Babbage, Associate Professor in Rehabilitation at the Centre for eHealth, has been working to help TBI sufferers regain their ability to recognise facial emotions. With colleagues in the US and Canada, he recently completed an international randomised controlled trial of 203 people with moderate to severe brain injury. From it, they developed a treatment that may be introduced in front-line services to ameliorate TBI sufferers’ interactions with others.

“Our research uncovered that a significant number – between 20% and 40% – of those who’ve had brain injuries can no longer recognise emotions that others are experiencing,” says Babbage. “Sometimes they don’t realise someone is angry with them, they just see a neutral face, so they don’t have the capacity to respond appropriately.”

During the study, 70 participants received one of two treatments, or an active treatment control. One group was trained to use visual perception to systematically work through and analyse different facial features. Over nine hours of treatment they worked one-on-one with a therapist doing computer-based tasks together.

“They looked at pictures of faces, relearned how to identify emotions in those faces, mimicking them using a mirror, and re-linking them to past situations where they experienced strong emotions. "This let them identify their own internal experience of the emotion and link it with the corresponding external display of the emotion.” The study compared this group to another where participants were taught to analyse the context of a situation to ascertain how others might be feeling.

“The group analysing facial expressions with the therapist was significantly better post-treatment at recognising emotions in the faces of people even three and six months after the trial.” It’s just one relatively simple but effective treatment that can help TBI sufferers regain some of their previous quality of life.

“We’re working at the functional level in terms of our intervention. We want to help them work around their problems to reduce the disability, even if the impairment is still there, ” Babbage says.