Foundation Alumna Stacey Dusing PT, PhD, to Help Premature Babies with $2.84 Million Grant

Children born very prematurely (at or before 28 weeks) are at a greater risk of developing neonatal brain injury, motor disabilities, and learning difficulties. They often require special education. In the past, early intervention measures did not start until infants reached six months of age or when infant delays were considered to be persistent. Infants that began early interventions often received a low dose – below the level that research suggests is needed to promote neuroplasticity and increase independence. To mitigate this issue, Physical Therapist and Associate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Stacey Dusing, PT, PhD, has been quantifying developmental changes and designing interventions to support motor and cognitive improvements in infants and children born very prematurely or at risk for disabilities. More than 15 years of research recently culminated with a $2.84 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to facilitate a multi-site clinical trial, “Efficacy of Motor and Cognitive Intervention for Infants Born Preterm (SPEEDI2).”

Dusing is a three-time funding recipient of the Foundation for Physical Therapy. Her most notable Foundation grant, the 2013 Pediatric Research Grant, allowed her to complete a pilot study -“Supporting Play, Exploration, & Early Development Intervention (SPEEDI) for Infants Born Preterm: An Initial Efficacy Study”-that directly resulted in the recent NIH R01 funding. Dusing was also the recipient of a 2005 Promotion of Doctoral Studies I Scholarship and a 2002 Mary McMillan Doctoral Scholarship.

Along with other medical specialists, Dusing will determine how early, evidence-based physical therapy intervention will enhance physical, social and cognitive outcomes in at-risk infants.

“The support the Foundation for Physical Therapy has provided over the last 2 decades has been instrumental in moving my career forward and helping me obtain future funding,” said Dusing. “The Foundation has helped kick-start my career and for that I wanted to offer my sincere gratitude.”

Throughout her career, Dusing has continued to advocate on behalf of the Foundation. She has served as a Scientific Review Committee member and, in her role as faculty member at VCU, promotes the Foundation and its mission to physical therapy students through the Foundation’s annual Marquette Challenge.

Select Foundation Grants and Scholarships Awarded

In the United States 1 in 8 infants are born prematurely (3 weeks early) increasing their risk of neonatal brain injury, learning difficulties, cerebral palsy, and motor disability. Up to 50% require special education. Federally mandated early intervention (EI) is the usual care for these infants and typically does not begin until infants are 6 to 12 months old. In addition, EI does not meet the recommended intensity to improve central nervous system function or improve developmental outcomes.

The proposed study will evaluate the initial efficacy of Supporting Play, Exploration, & Early Development Intervention (SPEEDI) an alternative was of providing EI. SPEEDI differs from current EI in 3 important ways. First it bridges the traditional gap in services from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to home, by providing ongoing and intensive activities when parents are establishing care giving routines with their infant. Second, parents are empowered through a collaborative relationship with the physical therapist to provide daily activities to support their infant’s development. Third, SPEEDI targets improvements in early motor abilities that are a foundation for perception and learning. SPEEDI’s primary goals are to support an infant’s varied movements and generate interactions with objects, people, and sensory stimulus (exploration) that supports global development.

Infants at high risk for developmental disabilities including born very preterm (3 months early) and infants with neonatal brain injuries (which occurred in utero or the first weeks of life) will be randomly assigned to the intervention or control group in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Infants the intervention group will receive intervention in the NICU and after discharge, provided by a physical therapists and parent collaboratively through 3 months of age. Motor development and problem solving outcomes will be compared between groups at the end of the intervention as well as 1 and 3 months after the end of the intervention. The hypothesis are that infant in the intervention group will have better reaching and problem solving skills after the intervention. In addition this study will collect preliminary data on the global development of enrolled infants 3 months after the intervention ends at 6 months of age. Findings from this study will influence the 8,000 physical therapists who provide federally mandated early intervention services to over 300,000 infants and toddlers in the United States. This study will be the first in a series of studied needed to assess the efficacy and cost effectiveness of SPEEDI compared to usual EI services.



  • Harbourne RT, Dusing SC, Lobo MA, Westcott-McCoy S, Bovaird J, Sheridan S, Galloway JC, Chang HJ, Hsu LY, Koziol N, Marcinowski EC, Babik I. “Sitting Together And Reaching To Play (START-Play): Protocol for a Multisite Randomized Controlled Efficacy Trial on Intervention for Infants With Neuromotor Disorders.” Journal of Physical Therapy Education. 2018; 98: 494-502.

  • Dusing SC, Tripathi T, Marcinowski EC, Thacker LR, Brown LF, Hendricks-Muñoz KD. “Supporting Play Exploration and Early Developmental Intervention Versus Usual Care to Enhance Development Outcomes During the Transition From the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to Home: a Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of Physical Therapy Education. 2017; 29: 199.

  • Dusing SC, Thacker LR, Galloway JC. “Infant born preterm have delayed development of adaptive postural control in the first 5 months of life.” ScienceDirect. 2016 (44), 49-58.