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Researchers at UWRF study brain stimulation to help those with aphasia

Falcon News Service

March 10, 2016

Two UW-River Falls professors are testing whether electrical brain stimulation can improve the communication skills of people with aphasia, a disorder that impairs one’s ability to process language.

Speech-language pathologists Naomi Hashimoto and Sharyl Samargia have combined their areas of interest and are working with a participant who they asked be identified only as “G.” G’s abilities to name objects accurately and say the right words became limited after she had a stroke that affected the left hemisphere of her brain, where the language section is held. Hashimoto said that G can understand most of what is said to her but struggles to respond coherently, which has been a challenge for her.

“She was a nurse, so this is a big loss for her because she was a really very verbal, very educated person,” Hashimoto said. “I think she feels keenly that she doesn’t get perceived that way anymore.”

Approximately 1 million Americans have aphasia, according to the National Aphasia Association, and nearly 180,000 Americans acquire it every year, most often as the result of a stroke.

For 20 minutes Monday through Friday, G receives an electric current of two milliamps from a transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) unit, administered by Samargia. The current is of low power and has had no adverse effects associated with it except for the occasional itching or tingling sensation reported by the participant. G then sits down with Hashimoto for traditional behavioral therapy, where Hashimoto talks to G and asks her to describe what is happening in an image. The idea behind this approach is that the brain will still be excited from the electrical current and improve G’s working memory, allowing her to remember and say the correct words.

The research is ongoing and the professors are looking for more participants.

The process of filing the paperwork, applying for grants, getting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use the tDCS for aphasia research, finding a place to do the research and finding participants for the study took almost two years. The research is happening without any grant funding, and Hashimoto and Samargia are working out of a University of Minnesota’s laboratory and using its equipment for free.

Hashimoto and Samargia said that they plan to work with three people for the current study and then use the data to request grant funding for a larger study, because getting grant funding is easier when the researchers can prove that their work is feasible or effective. Hashimoto said that the real challenge is going to be finding participants who meet the specific qualifications.

“The thing is that the folks cannot have defibrillators, they can’t have metal implants of any sort and they can’t have had seizures recently,” Hashimoto said. “People who have had strokes and who have aphasia typically will have defibrillators or pacemakers, so that’s ruling out a lot of people.”

Samargia said that, for this kind of study, they’re looking for people who can understand what is said to them but who struggle to communicate, which limits the range of candidates even more.

“We need them to be cognitively able to make decisions and follow directions and that kind of stuff,” Samargia said. “Sometimes if their stroke is pretty large or has impacted their cognition, that puts them out of the pool, too.”

Hashimoto and Samargia said that they currently have a second participant interested in the study, and they hope to have the third by the summer of 2016.