_NEWS Sports Medicine / Psychology

_Brain Power

Drexel’s Human Cognition Enhancement Program is breaking down departmental barriers to generate groundbreaking, comprehensive brain and behavioral research.

_Eugene Hong

Hong is the chief of the Division of Sports Medicine and holds the Hamot and Sturgis Endowed Chair of the department of family, community and preventative medicine.

When treating athletes who had suffered mild concussions, the College of Medicine’s Dr. Gene Hong noticed something peculiar.

For the first few appointments, his patients would arrive at his office accompanied by a parent. But after a few visits, many students started showing up alone. They had decided they could safely drive themselves to see him.

The problem is, they may not have been able to yet.

Hong knew many were still recovering from their brain injury. But because there is no empiric data to definitively show impaired driving ability with a concussion, it’s hard for a physician to know when an affected person is ready to safely resume driving or return to the playing field.

Through Drexel’s novel Human Cognition Enhancement Program (HCEP), Hong, who is chair of the College of Medicine’s family, community and preventive medicine department and chief of the sports medicine division, has connected with Dr. Maria Schultheis, an associate professor in psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, to explore the capabilities of concussion patients in a computer-based driving simulator. Together they applied for and received National Institutes of Health funding that is enabling Hong and Schultheis to get hard data on his patients’ performance in the simulator.

Created in 2009, HCEP facilitates these types of unique research collaborations across schools, colleges and departments, offering networking opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students and faculty to broaden their exposure outside their fields. By bringing together people who can contribute knowledge and expertise from various backgrounds and disciplines, HCEP is breaking down the academic silos that would otherwise stymie research into brain and behavior relationships.

“It’s an unfortunate truth in university cultures that although we prosper in our own disciplines, we don’t usually cross-fertilize too far afield from our primary expertise,” says Barry Waterhouse, a professor in the College of Medicine’s department of neurobiology and anatomy and HCDP’s scientific director. “But you need structures—even if they’re not physical—to bring people from different fields together and start talking about things they’re interested in with like-minded people who have different perspectives and technical skills.”

Though still a relatively young program, there are nine ongoing research collaborations within HCEP, two of which have received NIH funding. The hope is that the projects fostered through HCEP will grow into centers and institutes and foster new undergraduate majors and areas of study.