More Americans suffer from aphasia — a brain disorder in which a person loses the ability to understand or express words — than Parkinson's disease or muscular dystrophy. But few in the public have heard of the disease.
Thanks to a major federal grant, however, the study and treatment of aphasia, which can be triggered by stroke, gunshot or other trauma to the brain, is undergoing a major expansion.
The National Institutes of Health awarded Northwestern University a $12 million grant to support the Center for the Neurobiology of Language Recovery, which opened in April.
"Aphasia is a devastating disorder with the potential to affect every aspect of one's life from work to relationships," said Cynthia Thompson, professor of communication sciences at Northwestern who will lead the new center. "We know that language is controlled by a complex neural network. With trauma, part of that network is damaged."
The Northwestern center will be part of a network of aphasia researchers at Harvard, Boston and Johns Hopkins universities.
At Northwestern, Thompson will focus on the neural mechanisms of processing sentences and how to help patients recover from agrammatic aphasia, which makes them unable to understand and produce sentences. At Harvard and Boston, researchers David Caplan and Swathi Kiran will study anomic aphasia, in which the processing of spoken words is impaired. At Johns Hopkins, Brenda Rapp will research the neurobiology of the spelling and writing processes.
"The collaboration among these multidisciplinary teams will serve as a national resource for aphasia research, which could significantly accelerate the scientific discoveries that will lead to better treatment for the tens of thousands of people who develop the condition each year," said Judith A. Cooper, deputy director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The agency is part of the National Institutes of Health.
Aphasia is most often the result of a stroke, Cooper said.
"As stroke is the leading cause of adult disability in the United States; and aphasia one of the most devastating impairments that can result from having a stroke," she said. "It is critical to have an improved understanding and find better treatment modalities."
People who suffer brain injuries develop different kinds of communication problems, Thompson said. While some have difficulty forming sentences, others fumble in their attempts to find names for objects.
But the brain is capable of relearning language skills, she said.
Thompson said she has discovered that patients regain learning skills at higher levels when their rehabilitation program focuses on complex instead of simple sentence structures.
The Northwestern center's researchers plan to collect data over five years about the rehabilitation efforts of a total of 200 patients in Chicago, Boston and Washington, Thompson said.
"We will be looking at several variables to see the complete picture and determine biomarkers of recovery," she said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun