Health

In this Focus Area, CMAC runs projects devoted to understanding the healing process as well as projects devoted to envisioning solutions to pressing human health problems.

ASPECT Hub

ASPECT Hub

The ASPECT Team of researchers is developing technology that will universalize access to language-based devices (i.e. Amazon Echo, Google Home, etc.) to help improve the communication skills of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The long-term goal of this project will help enable young adults with ASD to function independently.

Team members have built and piloted a tool called the Autism Spectrum Engaged Cloud Technology (ASPECT) Hub. ASPECT implements the Verbal Behavior Milestone Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPPTM), including the Early Echoic Skills Assessment subtest, and is deployed through Amazon Alexa skillsets. The groundbreaking technology allows children with varying proficiencies to work on verbal and echoic skills by providing tailored and dynamic feedback based on performance. It is an innovative and personalized educational tool that can be used in homes, therapy centers and after-school learning programs.

ASPECT promotes access to these revolutionary and increasingly common technologies, as well as enhancing the ability of teachers, parents and therapists to teach essential communication skills.

Key Personnel

Partners

 
 
Epigenetics Project

Epigenetics Project 

The Epigenetics Project is issuing a call for a deeper and more considered dialogue on the human condition. Epigenetics refers to the suite of chemical processes that regulate genes, activating or suppressing proteins – regulation patterns that may (or may not) be heritable to some degree despite not being recorded in DNA base pairs. These processes have broad implications, from understanding human embryonic and childhood development (including intersex conditions and developmental disorders) to the possible inheritance of the effects of trauma to children or even grandchildren.

CMAC’s research team on this project aims to start an important conversation, particularly among philosophers, ethicists, and theologians, that critically examines the potential of epigenetics to shed light on our mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. Years Active 2017 – Present.

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Neuropsychology and Health Project

Neuropsychology and Health Project

CMAC researchers are investigating the brain-based conditions under which people are healthier. By analyzing conceptual models and evaluating relationships among the brain’s affective and cognitive dimensions, we are finding out more about the relationship between such things as spirituality and empathy. Our efforts in this project will help us discern how our minds affect our wellbeing and, therefore, how we might attain wellness from a psychological perspective. Years Active: 2015–Present.

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Minding Shadows

Minding Shadows

Minding Shadows is a documentary film about a 13-year-old boy who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide and prepared to exact revenge, but instead became a Buddhist monk who today teaches trauma healing around the world. Produced and directed by CMAC documentarian Jenn Lindsay, the film follows Olivier Biraro, a young man who originally enrolled in Karate and Taekwondo classes to learn deadly force after the devastation of the genocide – only for a profound experience of peace and discipline to change him forever. As the Venerable Sangharakkita, he now teaches the “Shadow Work” method to attain peace and find forgiveness from the inside out.

Venerable Sangharakkita’s story is a portrait of resilience in the face of evil, violence and vengeance. It is both timely and timeless, a demonstration of flourishing after trauma and a toolkit for handling suffering, from political to psychological levels. It casts an unblinking eye on the importance of airing out the shadows, secrets, fears and anger that so many keep submerged. Filmed in Rwanda, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Austria and Switzerland, it extends a story of hope and recovery in the most unlikely situations and speaks to weighty questions:

    • How do we forgive those who have gravely wronged us?
    • How can we be free of our rage, blame, regret and shame?
    • How can we become balanced individuals, able to embrace all parts of our complicated pasts and inner turmoil?

Minding Shadows will appeal to those interested in psychological healing and recovery from trauma, as well as those who want to learn about intercultural dialogues, Buddhism, and Rwandan relief efforts. For more information, see the film’s website: http://www.mindingshadows.comYears Active: 2017-Present.

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viaSTEM

viaSTEM 

One complex issue that we are deeply concerned about – in fact, we see it as a civil rights issue – is unequal access to development and training in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) for middle and high school students. CMAC is researching and creating ways to incorporate students of various ability levels and languages, whether they are sighted or vision-impaired, economically disadvantaged or well-off.

CMAC is working on making computer modeling and simulation universally accessible for children in informal education settings such as after-school programs, museum activity centers, homeschooling and community centers. Working with the brilliant engineers at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center to make simulation machinery responsive to sound and touch, the CMAC team is expanding the capacity and usability of simulation technology. Years Active: 2017-Present.

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Partners

 
 
Healing Causation Project

Healing Causation Project

CMAC’s Healing Causation Project aims to move beyond the hundreds of correlational studies identifying the health effects of dietary, spiritual, and social practices. Instead, the CMAC research team wants to identify the causal, biochemical mechanisms that produce physical and emotional healing. Researchers can determine cause and effect based on longitudinal studies, computer modeling, or experiments including clinical trials. These techniques can be more difficult to coordinate and carry out, but are highly worthwhile, as they can show the relationships between variables. Years active: 2010–present. 

Key Personnel

Research Partners

    • Boston University (current)
    • VMASC (current)
    • University of Pittsburgh (past)
    • National Institute of Health (past)
 
 
Neuroscience and Cognition in Parkinson's Disease Project

Neuroscience and Cognition in Parkinson’s Disease Project

On this project, CMAC investigates the effect of Parkinson’s Disease on cognition and emotion. The project uses advances in functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) techniques, new psychophysical cognitive priming techniques, and classical “on-off” levodopa (LD) comparative techniques to identify brain system alterations linked with patients’ cognition changes.

In addition, two doctoral students and one post-doctoral fellow are being trained in the scientific background and experimental techniques relevant to this project. CMAC believes that this work with these patients will identify key sources of their challenges as well as illuminate fundamental issues in the neuroscience of beliefs, behaviors, and experiences. Years active: 2012–2017.

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Research Partners

Relevant Publications

The Dopamine System, Parkinson’s Disease and Language Function

A Potential Case of Remission of Parkinson’s Disease

Impacts of Religious Semantic Priming on an Intertemporal Discounting Task: Response Time Effects and Neural Correlates

Possible Selves in Patients with Right- Versus Left-Onset Parkinson’s Disease

Neuroscience Can Contribute to Pastoral Care and Counseling

 
 
Sex Differences Project

Sex Differences Project (SDP)

CMAC’s Sex Differences Project explores issues of gender and sex diversity – including transgender, intersex, third sex, and others – in contemporary society and throughout history, across cultures and religions. A multi-method venture, CMAC uses surveys and neuroimaging to generate insights while also producing and analyzing datasets covering controversies surrounding the social construction of gender and sexual norms. This project received funding from a 2016-2017 Regional Development Grant from the American Academy of Religion and from Boston University to help support the Sex on the Margins conference in February 2017. Years active: 2014–Present.

Stories of Intersex and Faith: a sub-project of the Sex Differences Project
A sub-project of the Sex Differences Project, Stories of Intersex and Faith, aims to change the way people understand sex differences in a society that is deeply divided on this very topic. In sharing the stories of intersex people, CMAC’s goals are threefold: to end the isolation intersex persons face in America today; to stop non-medically necessary surgeries on intersex infants and children; and to start better conversations about sex, gender, and sexual diversity in faith communities and elsewhere.

Unlike any other documentary on the topic, CMAC’s will seek out, acknowledge, and begin to address the way that religious beliefs (conscious and unconscious) contribute to perpetuating those problems, in addition to depicting the way that cultural fears about sex differences fuel traumatizing surgeries on young children. Stories of intersex people of faith have the power to disarm those caught in the culture wars, so CMAC’s work has the potential to overcome current impasses to a productive conversation.

Key Personnel

 
 
Sleep and Dreams Project

Sleep and Dreams Project

In the far past of our species right up to the present day, dreams and nightmares have been associated with profound meaning. Some dreams seem to convey religious revelations while others express our deepest moral feelings and thoughts. Some people have also cultivated the ability to dream in lucid ways so as to explore the worlds they believe dreaming opens up to them. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of dreams if you haven’t personally experienced their force. In this project, the Center investigates the intricate connections between dreams and nightmares, on the one hand, and the construction of human life meanings, on the other. We employ a wide range of techniques from individual dream narratives to longitudinal dream journals, and from sleep studies to life histories. We aim to tease out the ways dreams and waking life are entangled, which will shed light on big questions such as the evolutionary origins of religion and morality, and the formation of life-guiding conviction and political commitments. 

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Virtual Reality for Nightmare Disorder Project

Virtual Reality for Nightmare Disorder Project

The Virtual Reality for Nightmare Disorder Project is an effort to create a virtual reality enabled treatment for the DSM-V diagnosis of Nightmare Disorder. Computer engineers at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) have created a customized software that researchers run through the Occulus Rift VR system to guide participants in a treatment session that allows them to confront and manipulate nightmare imagery.

The goal of this treatment is to activate the prefrontal cortex – where imagery control happens – to allow a greater command of disturbing mental images and to mitigate the overactive amygdala to maintain proper fear regulatory responses. The project hopes to better identify the causes of this disorder and thereby better ameliorate its effects. Years active: 2017–Present.

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