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Finding the Words: New Brain Stimulation Technique Shows Promise for People with Aphasia

A pile of words.
With aphasia, words that once came naturally
are suddenly difficult to retrieve.

Two recent NIDCD-funded research studies from the University of South Carolina have demonstrated how important the location of the brain damage is in predicting how well a person will respond to aphasia therapy after a stroke. They also investigated a new method for stimulating brain-damaged regions in people with aphasia, in hopes of increasing brain plasticity and perhaps improving word recall.

In research published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Julius Fridriksson, Ph.D., studied the effect of a standard therapy for improving naming recall on patients who experienced chronic aphasia after suffering a stroke that damaged the brain’s left hemisphere, where the language centers are found. He wanted to find out if the therapy helped increase activity in key regions of the brain. He found that some participants showed great improvement in their ability to name objects while others showed little change, depending on the location of the lesion. Participants whose lesions were located in areas specializing in word retrieval and phonological processing, toward the back of the left hemisphere, experienced significantly poorer results than participants whose lesions were located elsewhere. He also found that improvement in naming ability was closely tied to brain activation in regions toward the front as well as farther back in the brain’s left hemisphere. “What this study clearly shows is for those patients who do well in treatment, the damaged hemisphere changes and supports that recovery,” he said.

Julie Baker, Ph.D., who was working on her dissertation under Dr. Fridriksson, published her research in the June 2010 issue of Stroke. She used transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS)—a low-current stimulation technique that is safe, non-invasive, and barely detectable to the wearer—to attempt to further stimulate areas of the brain that are already activated during word retrieval. Dr. Baker found that, for all of the patients enrolled in the study, the numbers of correctly identified names following tDCS stimulation were higher than those following the placebo, not only for words they had worked on during the treatment, but for other words as well.

Read more on this story on the NIDCD website, read Dr. Fridriksson and Dr. Baker’s abstracts on PubMed, or learn about aphasia.

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