– Why are we making this project?
– What forms of abuse/maltreatment are there and what are the consequences?
– What treatment programs are there?
– What do we want to do?
– So what exactly will people have to do?
– So, what’s the science behind all of this?
– Why are we asking for your help?
– Are you an affected individual?
– How will we stay in touch and inform you about the progress of the project?
Why are we making this project?
Sexual and physical violence against women and children is a
global problem! Many people are not aware of the staggering numbers of women and children who are affected. In Belgium, where we are based, a survey of Amnesty International in 2013 has reported that, on an average day, 8 cases concerning rape are reported to the police. A survey of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights last year revealed that other member countries of the EU did also not fare well. In Germany around 35% of all respondents said that they had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a current or previous partner or by any other person since the age of 15. For other countries, figures were even more alarming showing that, in this category, Finnland, France, the Netherlands and the UK ranged between 44 to 47%. In the US, rates are equally concerning and RAIN, the rape abuse and incest national network suggests 1 instance of sexual assault every 107 seconds, hence our project title. Yes, it is that many. Top
What forms of abuse/maltreatment are there and what are the consequences?
Abuse can take many forms such as sexual abuse (e.g., rape, inappropriate touching of the genitals), physical abuse (e.g., beating) or emotional abuse (e.g., telling someone they are worthless). Being subject to such abuse is not only a violation of human dignity but affected individuals are likely to suffer from the consequences for a very long time indeed. Many traumatized individuals
continue to develop clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, sleeping and concentration problems or resort to using illegal drugs (or almost any combination of the above). Unfortunately, we still don’t really know why some people are likely to develop one kind of problem and other people other problems. Similarly, we don’t really know why some people are more likely to develop a problem while others are resilient, i.e., manage to continue with their lives somehow without developing psychopathology.
What treatment programs are there?
Unfortunately, treatment and help programs for victims of maltreatment and abuse differ widely depending on the health care system that you have in your country, on the availability of psychological treatment programs and psychotherapy and the financial ability of affected individuals to seek further help. Basic programs offered by health care providers are often insufficient and barely scratch the surface of the problems and may not even be available for a longer periods of time although most victims continue to deal with their problems for many years, even decades. While better programs are time intensive, they are very expensive and only available to a minority of affected people. Current treatment programs may include individual or group psychotherapy, psychopharmacological approaches( i.e., medication) or self-help groups. Top
What do we want to do?
Here at Ghent University, we want to explore a new treatment program that everyone can do from the convenience of their home. The idea is to develop a program with which to practice, on a tablet or computer, cognitive control. Cognitive control is just another fancy term that scientists use for our ability to control or regulate our behaviour. Some examples of such control behavior would be for your brain to be able to keep things in short term memory (such as remembering a person’s phone number before you can write it down), or to react quickly and flexibly to upcoming situations (for example, engaging the car breaks at the last second during a yellow traffic light). The idea of training “control functions” for people with psychopthology has been around for a while but many of these programs are rather tedious and quite frankly boring to do. In addition, the main question in our endeavour is whether by training control behavior we can improve mood and anxiety symptoms and increase resilience in traumatized individuals. Top
So what exactly will people have to do?
The idea is to provide individuals with a laptop or tablet and have them practice over a 6 week period
‘cognitive control’ for about one hour a day. The complete training consists of little packages or separate control skills that will be trained (each one for a period of time before moving to the next package). So in one package, you will have to briefly remember things, while in another package you will have to inhibit your response quickly when seeing a signal at the last minute. The level of difficulty will increase as you will get better over time. We will measure well-being (and resilience), mood and anxiety symptoms and other potential problems at the beginning and at the end of the study and want to see what changed (and how much). If the initial findings are promising we would like to do longer-term studies looking at whether regular training can improve and maintain well-being over a longer period of time. For now, it is something one can do anywhere or anytime assuming you have laptop or tablet on you. Of course, if this proves successful, maybe in the long-term we can also offer the training online so that even people without a personal laptop can access it via a public library or other public computers. Top
So, what’s the science behind all of this? And why does training cognitive control potentially help with overcoming trauma?
Ok, time to get nerdy. Let’s look at this picture of a brain below. A large part (but not exclusively) of our ability to execute the abilities reported above (briefly remembering numbers or shopping lists, quickly inhibiting a response) is located at the frontal sides of the brain, which we call lateral prefrontal cortex (here coloured in red). However, the same brain region has also been associated with good mental health, i.e., being a protective factor from developing a mental illness. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) studies have shown that traumatized individuals experience problems with control behaviour (cognitive control) and that the structural size of this brain region (among some others) is also reduced suggesting a weakened functionality. Studies from other areas of neuroscience have shown that training specific functions can increase structural integrity of brain regions subserving this particular function. For example, learning a second language or playing a musical instrument have both been shown to increase brain structure in parts of the brain that are associated with it. Building on this idea in the present context, we want to train the abilities that are served by the lateral prefrontal cortex. Training these skills will, we believe, strengthen the underlying neuroanatomy, and in result increase resilience and protect from developing (further) mental illness and improve mood and anxiety symptoms. We are not re-inventing the wheel. The idea to train cognitive control is not new and has shown some initial promising results. However, one continuing problem is that the training can feel rather monotonous at times because of its repetitive nature. Therefore, we want to find a more (visually) engaging way so that it will be easier and more fun to complete the training over longer periods of time given that the training does require some persistence. Top
Why are we asking for your help?
Although universities normally get their money through applying for grants to professional funding bodies, which are either directly or indirectly supported by the government or non-profit organizations or private foundations, the success rate has been decreasing dramatically over the past few years. The quality of science has gone up (which is a good thing), the budgets allocated by governments have decreased and the competition has increased. In many Western countries, success rates of grants are about 10%, that means only 1 application out of 10 gets funded. Needless to say, even many good projects do not get funded this way. Therefore, we have decided to try something new. We want you, the public, to decide whether you think our project is worth supporting. If YOU like the project and want to help out we would appreciate a small donation, of whatever amount you can or are willing to spare. Even if you do not wish to contribute at this stage, maybe you could at least share our video with family and friends to raise awareness. If you are a company and have some tablets to spare, which we could pass on the affected individuals that would be fantastic too. The more tablets or notebooks we have, the more people can participate at the same time and the quicker we can evaluate the outcome of the study. Or if you are a programmer with too much time on your hands and interested in helping us develop/improve the visual aspects of our training, we’d love to hear from you, too. What is your benefit? Nothing at all. Just the knowledge that we have been trying to come up with a better and cheaper (or just complementary) way to improve the lives of a large group of society. Top
Are you an affected individual?
Of course, we cannot do this project without the help of affected individuals. If you have experienced any of the traumas mentioned above, are a man or a woman, living in Belgium and would like to participate in this project and see whether our idea really works, please feel free to get in touch with us. It doesn’t matter how recent or how long ago the trauma has been or if it is still ongoing. We would provide you with a tablet or notebook and would ask you to complete the training over a prolonged period of time and check back in with you on a regular basis. Top
How will we stay in touch and inform you about the progress of the project?
Well, if you are a “twitterer”, feel free to follow us. If not, we have embedded our newsfeed into the “news” page of this website, thus you can check on progress anytime without having to sign up. Please be aware that although we would like to move forward as much as possible with this project, the speed will largely be determined by the amount of donations we received, the amount of laptops we are able to acquire and the amount of help (research or project assistants) we can recruit.
Thank you so much for stopping by our website and reading about our project. We really appreciate it! If you have any further questions, or suggestions or critiques, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We would like to hear from you.
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