Brennan Delattre, a lab manager and research assistant at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, was awarded a Fulbright fellowship for the 2018-19 academic year to fund research on the mental health benefits of cooperative movement in Niterói, Brazil.

“During my time as an undergraduate, I became immersed in an Afro-Brazilian movement art called capoeira, which has elements of martial arts, dance, music, acrobatics, and improvisation with a partner,” said Delattre.

Delattre is from Orono, Minnesota and majored in neuroscience at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. “I’ve played capoeira in Montreal, Minnesota, Vermont, and Brazil. Across lines of age, gender, ethnicity, language, country of origin, socio-economic status, and physical ability, I watched hundreds of people walk into capoeira classes and walk out reporting that they felt 'better.'”

For her senior thesis, Delattre focused on the puzzle of defining “better” in a quantifiable way. 

“From a neuroscience background, ‘better’ was the most frustratingly unscientific word, and I became interested in how we could eventually develop a mental health intervention that involved capoeira or aspects of capoeira,” Delattre said. “I’m specifically interested in the cooperative movement aspect in terms of social and emotional rehabilitation.”

She assigned measurable characteristics to “better,” and asked participants to complete questionnaires designed to determine if their anxiety had been reduced, if their self-efficacy had increased, and if they were more likely to demonstrate prosocial behaviors after completing sessions of the cooperative movement. Delattre saw a decrease in anxiety and an increase in feelings of empowerment, but the groups were too small to determine significant changes.

Delattre currently manages the labs of Pearl Chiu, Brooks King-Casas, and Stephen LaConte — all of whom are associate professors at the VTCRI. Chiu and King-Casas focus their brain and behavior research on understanding the science of decision-making in health and in disease, while LaConte works to improve neuroimaging techniques and to develop brain-biomedical device interfaces. All three researchers also study how people interact with one another in different contexts.

Chiu and King-Casas are also both associate professors in the Department of Psychology in Virginia Tech’s College of Science, and LaConte is an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.

“Working in the labs of Dr. Chiu, Dr. King-Casas, and Dr. LaConte, I’ve seen first-hand how researchers conduct large-scale interventions and investigate social phenomena,” Delattre said. “The experience has led me to further consider how one would quantify prosociality in different ways.”

According to Chiu, Delattre’s interests in understanding the mental health benefits of cooperative movement have been apparent from her first day at VTCRI.

“We are so thrilled that Fulbright has recognized the potential value of Brennan’s proposed research and that she’s been awarded the rare opportunity to carry out her ideas in the Niterói community,” Chiu said. “We look forward to hearing about Brennan’s research results and also to watching her shine as an international science ambassador.”

The longitudinal effects of cooperative movement are of particular interest to Delattre, and the Fulbright Award will fund Delattre’s research and living expenses for the academic year.

“With the Fulbright support, I’ll better be able to investigate trait changes, not just temporary fluctuations of a person’s feelings after a session of cooperative movement,” Delattre said. “Maybe a session of capoeira makes you feel ‘better,’ but for how long? Will several classes a week for a series of weeks make you feel even better? How do we quantify that feeling?”

The measurements are designed to get a sense of the traits of a person as a whole, rather than simple in-the-moment snapshots.

“Over the nine months in Brazil, I’ll collect data from participants not just before and after one class, but also throughout regular movement sessions, as well as after the intervention has ended,” Delattre said.  

Delattre plans to eventually develop and test the efficacy of creativity-based interventions to supplement traditional approaches to mental health, such as talk therapy, that could potentially be implemented in a systematic way. She suggests that perhaps, in 20 years, a cooperative movement activity might be one of the low-cost options a health care provider gives to a patient who meets the criteria for depression or anxiety.

“I think therapy would be good for everyone, but there is societal stigma and very real monetary barriers around counseling,” Delattre said. “Going to a prescribed social, movement-based activity could be not only something people are more inclined to attend and tell their social support systems about, but also something they might be inclined to continue.”

Delattre will work under the mentorship of Luiz Mendonça, a professor of dance and anatomy at the Federal University of Niterói.

“I’m excited about this project because while there are so many anecdotes to the effect of ‘exercise makes me feel better, meditation makes me feel better, dance makes me feel better,’ there’s a lot of room to methodically investigate the mechanisms under those feelings, and to use potential findings in support of an intervention that incorporates art and science to improve life for people across demographics,” Delattre said.