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Arnold School of Public Health


USC Times features COMD's USC Speech and Hearing Research Center

December 21, 2015

The below story is republished here from UofSC Today and USC Times.

The University of South Carolina's Speech and Hearing Research Center isn't located on campus - it's situated on the second floor of the Keenan Building in downtown Columbia - but step through the center's glass doors into the reception area and you discover an entire new world. Over the past year, roughly 5,000 people of all ages have done exactly that - people who stutter, people with autism, people who have lost language due to stroke and, of course, people with difficulty hearing.

Part of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, the center also sees people struggling to acquire reading, writing and spelling skills. "We see a whole range of children and adults who have speech, language or hearing issues," says center director and senior clinical instructor Danielle Varnedoe. "And we'd like to see even more."

According to Varnedoe, who specializes in childhood speech-sound disorders, the center's combination of academic research and evidence-based clinical practice offers an "added value" both to students, who gain experience working with an array of communication issues, and to the larger community. "Parents say they love coming here because as a university training program we have these young, energetic, eager-to-learn graduate students who are closely supervised by experts in the field," says Varnedoe. "They know we're keeping up with what's state of the art."

One such parent is physical education instructor Robin Stodden, whose 7-year-old son Camden has been coming one hour a week for the past three years. Camden has an unusual form of receptive-expressive delay that makes it difficult for him to retrieve language. The center's staff uses evidence-based therapies that incorporate physical activity to teach him communication strategies.

"Camden has grown by leaps and bounds developmentally, with his ability to find words, his articulation," says Stodden. "Having the grad students working 60 minutes intensively with your child is just amazing. His teacher this year said she wouldn't even realize that he is delayed because he's now so good at using these strategies. He has just blossomed."

For Varnedoe and the rest of the faculty at the Center for Speech and Hearing Research, that's a validation of the center's larger philosophy and mission, which extends into all of their endeavors, onsite and out in the community.

"We don't just supervise our graduate students," says Varnedoe. "We train them to be good consumers of research, to engage in critical thinking right then and there when they're with a client, not two days later after they finish the session. Clinical education is our main baby, and it results in excellent care for our patients."

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With more than 120 graduate students and 25 full-time faculty members, including academic and clinical faculty, the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders offers a broad-based curriculum that includes the study of spoken and written language development and disorders, adult neurogenic disorders and cochlear implant rehabilitation. The center, which is part of the Arnold School of Public Health, provides approximately 6,000 patient hours per year. "Clinical scientists see every patient as a new case and approach the situation scientifically," says department chair Kenn Apel. "They consider the evidence and consult the latest research, they consider the client's needs and the family's needs, and they use critical thinking to solve the problem."


Loud and clear

The statistics are clear: One-third of adults over 65 have some degree of hearing loss significant enough to impact their daily life. But just 20 percent of that group use hearing aids, and of that 20 percent, a significant portion don't use them every day.

Why? Because, while hearing aids are helpful in quiet rooms, they don't work so well when people really need them - for example, when they are in a crowded restaurant or a place with a lot of background noise.

Dan Fogerty, an assistant professor in the Arnold School of Public Health's Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and director of USC's Speech Perception Laboratory, wants to improve that hearing experience. In Fogerty's lab, research projects seek to define how basic properties of speech contribute to speech understanding under a variety of complex and adverse listening conditions. He is particularly interested in how age, hearing loss and cognitive function influence a listener's ability to understand speech.

Work in his lab attempts to identify the most important cues for listeners to use in varying conditions to improve the programming of speech transmission technologies (such as hearing aids, cochlear implants or cell phones) along with the design of training protocols. "There has been a lot of development in terms of (hearing aid) hard ware, but the hearing experience can still be improved," says Fogerty, who established the Speech Perception Lab at USC in 2011 and is also affiliated with the Institute for Mind and Brain. "We're trying to come up with some software solutions."

Hearing aids are designed to improve the ability of the listener to detect the sound, since the primary predictor of understanding speech is whether it's audible. One of the lab's goals is to develop software and take hearing aids a little further; to customize them to pick up on the cues and the speech process abilities of the listener. "Hearing aids are a sophisticated way of turning up the volume," Fogerty says. "But while our ear has a lot of communication with our brain, a hearing aid has none."

For Fogerty, who says he has always been fascinated with speech, it's about finding the best ways to help individuals unable to process and understand sound.

"I am particularly interested in how age, hearing loss, and cognitive function influence a listener's ability to use these speech properties, and how we are able to use this (research) to provide a substantial benefit and impact someone's everyday life."

See the online version of this issue of the USC Times here.