USF center's research targets joint ailments
TAMPA — The name "Center for Neuromusculoskeletal Research" is a tongue-twister, but it targets maladies all too common in the annals of human misery: Bad backs, arthritic joints, sore jaws, broken hips, dementia.
The center, the latest addition to the growing medical complex at the University of South Florida, was created with $500,000 in recurring annual money this year from a tight-fisted state Legislature.
William Quillen, director of USF's physical therapy school, is a passionate advocate for medical treatment that while not glamorous, can mean better lives for millions.
"Neuromusculoskeletal conditions sap the quality of life, degrade our workforce, impact us at home, work, school and in recreation," he says. "From the stoop-laborer in the farm field to the computer guy without an ergonomically correct desk chair, there is an impact on so many."
These types of disorders are the most common self-reported medical conditions affecting adults in the country today, he says, topping heart and lung problems, diabetes or cancer.
Showpiece of the new center will be the CAREN system, a state-of-the-art, virtual-reality simulator that replicates a variety of settings while treating or assessing medical conditions.
The simulator consists of a 21-foot dome with a 300-degree screen, on which is projected assorted scenes — cityscapes, bridges, the sands of Afghanistan, a ride on a wave-tossed boat.
Sensors placed on the patient's body interact with the scene in a way that's similar to some video game systems.
High-speed infrared cameras, surround sound and a platform that simulates the terrain contribute to a feeling of immersion in the experience.
Soldiers with prosthetics, for example, can test out their new limbs while secured in a harness.
Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can re-experience the accident or event in a safe environment to help desensitize them.
Blind people can hear authentic sound effects and feel the uncertainty of walking on dirt paths.
Physicians can assess the ability of an aging patient to navigate uneven walkways.
"It will be both a rehabilitation tool and a research tool," says Quillen.
A National Science Foundation Award provided USF $450,000 to purchase CAREN, making it the first simulator of its kind in use in a non-military setting in the United States.
One of the CAREN simulators in use in Canada depicts the streets of the nearby town, including landmarks. Quillen says he hopes to work with virtual designers at USF to recreate Tampa or the university.
The new center will be part of the established School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Services in the Morsani School of Medicine.
The school already is a hub of research, with more than $2.5 million in studies under way.
John Mayer, an expert in spinal pain and disability, is working with Tampa firefighters to strengthen their lower backs to make carrying equipment or injured people safer.
He also is involved in a project at Fort Hood, Texas, to do the same for soldiers, who tend to shuck their heavy body armor in the field.
"Back pain ruins lives," says Mayer, co-director of the new center. "It's the No. 1 cause of disability and the No. 1 cause of premature retirement."
It also fuels the abuse of prescription pain relievers, he says.
The Human Functional Performance Laboratory in the school uses cutting-edge technology to assess impairment and limitations in muscles, joints, gait, endurance and other areas.
Quillen is glad that problems that afflict so many are finally getting substantive funding — and respect.
"Historically, these issues haven't been a priority," he says. "NIH (the National Institutes of Health) spends more on male baldness than neuromusculoskeletal problems."