Fighting Aphasia

University of Arizona a Leader in Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences

By Rodney Campbell

Hollywood legend Bruce Willis recently had to step away from acting because of his struggle with aphasia, a condition that causes difficulty in conveying thoughts through speech or writing. The person knows what they want to say, but can’t find the words.

Closer to home, one of the lingering effects of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ recovery after an attempt on her life in 2011 is her battle with aphasia. Giffords wrote in a Washington Post editorial in April: “The bullet tore through the left hemisphere of my brain, where the language function sits, leaving profound and lasting damage in my ability to speak.”

Much of Giffords’ care was coordinated by alumni from the University of Arizona’s Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. Under the leadership of Mary Alt, the department works on solutions to issues that many people only know about in personal encounters.

“A lot of people come to know and understand our field when they’ve had a personal experience,” Alt said, “maybe a loved one who had a stroke or has Alzheimer’s or a cousin with autism. We do so much it’s sometimes hard to comprehend.”

Last year, Alt became head of a department that has long been a national leader in speech-language pathology and audiology and the sciences that support those clinical professions. Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences is part of the School of Mind, Brain and Behavior in the College of Science.

Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences, which became a department in 1971, places teaching and clinical work at the top of its mission. Its research work includes labs like the L4 Lab: Language, Learning, Literacy Lexicon; Aphasia Research Project; the Arizona Human Electrophysiology and Auditory Department (AHEAD) and Tinnitus Project; and WINGSS (Working Investigations of Novel Genes for Song and Speech).

“One of the things that’s always been a strength of our department is our research,” Alt said. “We’ve been a nationally ranked top 10 program for 30 years. We’ve had long history of federal funding for research.”

Current activity in the department illustrates the depth of that research.

Aneta Kielar is researching parts of the brain and neural factors that affect language and how they change after a stroke or due to dementia. Kielar, an assistant professor with appointments at the BIO5 Institute and part of the teaching faculty for UArizona’s Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Cognitive Science, examines how neuromodulation techniques combined with behavioral therapy help people with post-stroke aphasia or with primary progressive aphasia caused by Alzheimer’s disease. She uses neuroimaging to map changes in the brain. 

Professor Brad Story, associate dean of the College of Science, and his colleagues seek to understand how typical speech is produced. The team developed a computer model that simulates the stages in which spoken sounds or sound combinations are planned, combined and transformed into the movements of the structures in the head and the neck used for talking. When this computer model simulates this movement, it generates natural-sounding synthetic speech.

Associate Professor Nicole Marrone, the James S. and Dyan Pignatelli/Unisource Clinical Chair in Audiologic Rehabilitation for Adults, focuses on a project to help underserved and under-researched populations receive treatment for age-related hearing loss. “Building Research Capacity on Hearing Loss Interventions in Hispanic/Latinx Communities,” is a collaboration with the University of Miami, Mariposa Community Health Center and San Juan Bosco Clinic.

Marrone’s work is an example of how Alt and her department have prioritized multiculturalism in their work. Alt encourages researchers to get into the field to learn directly from the people they want to assist, some of whom live along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“There’s often a big gap between what we learn in a lab or research study and how that impacts care in the real world,” Alt said. “What we’ve been learning is if you want the work to make an impact, you can’t just sit in your lab and run your experiments. Researchers need to work with the community.”

While their efforts may not be at the forefront of everyone’s attention, the solutions that the UArizona researchers seek help many people. For example, an estimated 2 million Americans have aphasia and 3 million suffer from Alzheimer’s.

“At some point in their lives, people will come into contact with what we do,” Alt said. “We just want to help people live their fullest lives.”

Pictured above from left – Professor Brad Story, Assistant Professor Aneta Kielar and Associate Professor Nicole Marrone. Photo by Brent G. Mathis
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