Published January 14, 2022
Three faculty members from the Department of Communicative Disorders and Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, have received prestigious awards from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation.
Nichol Castro, Christopher Heffner and Thea Knowles, all assistant professors, were recognized with New Investigator Research Grants Nov. 18 during the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s annual convention in Washington, D.C.
Only 10 of the grants are awarded annually.
The New Investigator Research Grants are designed to help faculty members collect preliminary data to launch large-scale federal grant applications.
Castro’s research aims to better understand the mechanism that supports positive treatment outcomes for people with aphasia, a language disorder that often occurs when an individual suffers a stroke in the left hemisphere of the brain.
“Many people with aphasia experience significant difficulty in retrieving words from memory,” says Castro. “While existing treatments for word-retrieval impairments often lead to positive outcomes for words trained during treatment, such as ‘dog,’ we tend to see much lower improvement in untrained, related words, like ‘cat,’ despite strong theoretical hypotheses for the possibility.”
The results of the project, titled “Determining the Distance of Spreading Activation in the Phonological Network of Persons with Aphasia to Inform Selection of Treatment Generalization Probes,” will help researchers better understand how treatment works and ultimately better select trained and untrained words to be used in treatment.
Heffner’s research focuses on the ability of people with Parkinson’s disease to perceive and learn from small differences in how fast or loud other people are talking. His study, titled “Speech Perception in Parkinson’s Disease: Loudness and Rate,” is novel work; many studies have looked at how people with Parkinson’s produce speech, but perception is fairly unknown.
“Parkinson’s disease is usually thought of in terms of its consequences for movement and balance, but it actually has effects on a variety of different processes,” Heffner explains. “Much of my training has focused on studying younger adults, but I’ve progressively turned more and more to studying populations with speech, language or hearing disorders.”
One way that English speakers indicate important information to others during conversation is by making certain words more acoustically prominent by saying them longer, louder, in higher pitches and hyperarticulated. However, individuals with speech deficits associated with Parkinson’s disease often have difficulty modifying these aspects of speech, although they often are able to make words more prominent when explicitly instructed to do so.
The goal of Knowles’ study, “Prominence and Communicative Intent in Dysarthria,” is to identify how people with Parkinson’s convey prominent words in actual communicative settings in order to better characterize the functional impact of the speech symptoms of the disease.
“To date, studies have not explored how successful people with Parkinson’s disease are at using prominence under actual communication demands; for example, when giving someone instructions or directions,” says Knowles. “In my lab, the Clinical Applications of Speech Acoustics, we study speech production in people with speech disorders that are secondary to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, and how speech symptoms affect a person’s ability to be understood.”