This summer I have been working on a research project with my mentor, Dr. Reuben Robbins. Dr. Robbins is a clinical psychologist who is interested in developing and testing technology-based interventions to try and create positive health outcomes for individuals living with HIV. I have enjoyed participating in his research and to be a member of his research team. I have learned more about HIV and how it affects the brain, especially in adolescents.

Perinatally exposed HIV positive adolescents suffer from many life long effects as a result of their HIV status. One important detrimental effects faced by these adolescents is neurocognitive impairment (NCI). This impairment most commonly affects things like working memory, executive functioning and processing speed.

The most important step in addressing NCI is detecting and diagnosing it effectively so that these individuals are provided necessary support and treatment. However, this is a lot easier said than done. In South Africa, there are very few neurocognitive and screening tests available. The ones that do exist require highly trained people to conduct the tests, take several hours to administer and are expensive. Furthermore, NCI tests developed in the US or Europe may suffer from cultural biases and fail to predict real-world outcomes in places such as South Africa.

To address many of these challenges, Dr. Robbins has created an app called NeuroScreen. This app has been designed for Android devices to assess and screen for NCI. The app has been designed so that non-expert healthcare personnel are able to administer it in clinical settings. The app contains nine tests assessing processing speed, executive functioning, working memory, verbal memory, and motor speed. The app is highly automated and requires minimal training.

In 2018, Dr. Robbins was awarded a federal research grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to determine the validity of NeuroScreen. Throughout the summer, I have been helping Dr. Robbins work to refine the tool that will be used to assess NCI among perinatally exposed HIV positive adolescents in South Africa.  I have been able to work closely with the questionnaires that will be uploaded to the app and used in the field. I have been able to learn about the important measures that assess different parts of neurocognitive functioning. I am very excited because the app will go live in the next month or two when Dr. Robbins returns to South Africa and the study will begin to assess the adolescents.

This opportunity to work directly on a research project that is going into the field and can make a measurable difference in the lives of HIV positive individuals, is quite rewarding. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Robbins and his research team.