Effects of traumatic brain injury on a virtual reality social problem solving task and relations to cortical thickness in adolescence.
Social problem solving was assessed in 28 youth ages 12-19 years (15 with moderate to severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), 13 uninjured) using a naturalistic, computerized virtual reality (VR) version of the Interpersonal Negotiations Strategy interview (Yeates, Schultz, & Selman, 1991). In each scenario, processing load condition was varied in terms of number of characters and amount of information. Adolescents viewed animated scenarios depicting social conflict in a virtual microworld environment from an avatars viewpoint, and were questioned on four problem solving steps: defining the problem, generating solutions, selecting solutions, and evaluating the likely outcome. Scoring was based on a developmental scale in which responses were judged as impulsive, unilateral, reciprocal, or collaborative, in order of increasing score. Adolescents with TBI were significantly impaired on the summary VR-Social Problem Solving (VR-SPS) score in Condition A (2 speakers, no irrelevant information), p=0.005; in Condition B (2 speakers+irrelevant information), p=0.035; and Condition C (4 speakers+irrelevant information), p=0.008. Effect sizes (Cohens D) were large (A=1.40, B=0.96, C=1.23). Significant group differences were strongest and most consistent for defining the problems and evaluating outcomes. The relation of task performance to cortical thickness of specific brain regions was also explored, with significant relations found with orbitofrontal regions, the frontal pole, the cuneus, and the temporal pole. Results are discussed in the context of specific cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying social problem solving deficits after childhood TBI.