By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Two Northeast Tennessee professionals have linked their respective areas of expertise in HemispheresNeuro, a new company focused on assessing the risk of recidivism among sex offenders.
Eric Sellers is Director of the Brain-Computer Interface Laboratory at East Tennessee State University (ETSU), while Mike Adler is Clinical Executive Director for SteppenStone Youth Treatment Services in Johnson City.
In many respects, it’s an unlikely pairing of two individuals with divergent backgrounds who have found a unique application for their combined expertise. The key is a mutual belief in the importance of using the advanced technological tools of eye-tracking and electroencephalogram (i.e., EEG or brainwaves) for risk assessment and treatment of sex offenders.
Adler has nearly three decades of experience in the field of sex offender assessment and treatment as well as the treatment of sexual abuse victims. He’s is a Senior Psychological Examiner in the State of Tennessee, approved as a Sex Offender Assessment and Treatment Provider by the Tennessee Sex Offender Board, and a Certified Sex Offender Specialist in the State of Virginia.
“I developed an assessment and treatment program that keeps those likely to do so (repeat as a sex offender) off the streets and treat those who can be rehabilitated,” Adler told us during a recent interview at ETSU’s Innovation Lab.
On the other hand, Sellers’ career has been focused on developing electroencephalogram (EEG)-based communication systems for severely disabled people using methods broadly adapted from the areas of cognitive psychophysiology and attention. His basic research interests lie in the areas of high-level cognitive function and in gaining a better understanding of the cognitive abilities of people with locked-in syndrome.
The two met in 2012 and started their company in August 2015.
“I knew he (Sellers) did brain stuff,” Adler says. What he did not know but soon learned was that Sellers also had expertise in eye gaze, something that Adler believed was a key indicator of propensity to become a sex offender or to be a likely repeater.
“If you are sexually interested in a person, how you look at them is different,” Adler explains. “You enter a room and make a decision in five seconds as to whom you want to talk. The brain’s response is that’s what I want or need.”
So, armed with their common interest in the significance of viewing behavior as a key indicator, the duo began developing their risk assessment tool.
“We just filed for a patent that was based on information received through the integration of eye gaze with EEG,” Adler told us.
Their approach, named the Visual Assessment of Sexual Interest or VASI, involves a laptop, an external monitor, an EEG amplifier, and electrode cap. The person being assessed wears the cap and views collages of people on the computer screen. Those reactions are recorded and evaluated.
“How long we look at something is not as important as how we look at it,” Adler explains. “Using our tool, we (examiners and treatment professionals) can make better informed decisions.”
HemispheresNeuro conducted a double blind test in which its approach was 96 percent reliable in discriminating sexual offenders from non-offenders.
“We can test people now,” Sellers says, but adds that the team is still improving its software.
Thus far, Adler and Sellers have self-funded their work.
“There are very few grants for sex treatment, and the amounts are small,” Sellers says.
HemispheresNeuro was one of the first start-ups accepted into Life Science Tennessee’s “Statewide Mentor Network.” The company has also received good support from ETSU’s Innovation Lab.