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Children's National Psychologists Receive $485,000 Award for Innovative Research in Sickle Cell Disease

Steven Hardy, PhD, and Kristina K. Hardy, PhD, pediatric psychologists at Children’s National Health System, are recipients of a $485,000 Doris Duke Innovations in Clinical Research Award for their unfolding research into whether computerized cognitive training programs used on a mobile app can help children with sickle cell disease overcome memory and attention deficits.

The Hardys, who are unrelated, were awarded the funding based on their proposed research study titled, “Feasibility and Efficacy of a Home-Based, Computerized Cognitive Training Program in Pediatric Sickle Cell Disease.”

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Innovations in Clinical Research Award provides funding for early-stage research projects in clinical investigations to foster innovations that advance the “prevention, diagnosis and treatment” of disease in people.

The foundation’s “devotion to funding medical research in sickle cell disease really helps to shine a light on a group of children that rarely receives as much attention as some other groups,” said Steven Hardy of Children’s National’s Divisions of Hematology and Oncology. “The Innovations in Clinical Research Award will enable us to explore new ways to reduce the impact of sickle cell disease on children at home and school,” Hardy said.

Children with sickle cell disease have an increased risk for neurocognitive problems, due to reduced blood and oxygen flow to the brain. As a result, it may be difficult for the children to remember information and pay attention, which can create obstacles in their day-to-day lives, such as hindering their school work, Hardy said. 

“These problems may look like a child is being ‘lazy’ but it may actually represent neurological damage caused by sickle cell disease,” Steven Hardy said. The Children’s National researchers believe, however, that by using cognitive training programs, they can make inroads on memory or attention problems of children with sickle cell disease, which could be groundbreaking, Hardy said.

The cognitive training program consists of several exercises that target skills denoting visual perception of objects and verbal memory. Children are challenged to remember information in different ways.
Such cognitive training programs can be loaded onto mobile devices such as iPads and iPhones.  Children would use the devices, supplied by Children’s National, several times a week at home. Researchers then would evaluate the children’s progress.

Cognitive training programs have been used for other childhood illnesses, but not with sickle cell disease.

Kristina Hardy, the co-recipient of the award, was one of the first researchers in the country to examine the applications of computerized cognitive training in pediatric illness populations. In an earlier project, she conducted a pilot study that showed computerized cognitive training “could be successfully completed by survivors of childhood leukemia and brain tumors,” Hardy said. Such patients “experience problems with attention and memory that are similar to those of some children with sickle cell disease,” she added.

“I’m optimistic that the same kind of training can be completed successfully by children with sickle cell disease, and I am hopeful that it can help improve their working memory as well,” Kristina Hardy said.

Although computerized cognitive training has been successfully used for survivors of childhood cancer and young patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), Steven Hardy said that their research involving sickle cell disease is “considered preliminary primarily because it is new with this population.”

“We think that since we are delivering this intervention at home using technology, children are going to be more likely to complete the intervention, but we don’t know that for sure,” he said.

The study has the potential to break new ground because “at this point, we do not have many options to offer families searching for ways to recover lost functioning or improve memory and attention,” Steven Hardy said. “We hope we will find that most children are able to complete the program without much trouble and end up doing better after using the program, which could lead to improvements in behavior at home and achievement at school.”

Contact: Emily Hartman or Joe Cantlupe at 202-476-4500.

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