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COMD student receives grant to help research her mentor’s video game to treat patients with aphasia

July 6, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

The Arnold School’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD) is home to many experts whose research focuses on the challenging public health issue of aphasia. Characterized by a range of language problems that result from brain damage due to stroke or injury, aphasia affects approximately one million people in the United States and presents an array of baffling challenges that are difficult to treat and vary in manifestation and severity from patient to patient.

In addition to housing research that aims to learn more about how aphasia affects each person differently, COMD’s clinical  focus (e.g., the department houses the USC Speech and Hearing Research Center and educates future speech-language pathologists) provides the perfect context for conducting research to enhance treatment for aphasia as well. Assistant Professor and Neurolinguistics Laboratory Director Dirk den Ouden and his collaborators are doing just that—through an innovative and interactive video game platform.

A gaming environment helps overcome motivational challenges by providing an incentive to score points through accurate and timely naming.

-Dirk den Ouden, Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders

Together with Computer Science and Engineering’s Jijun Tang and Jeremiah Shepherd, Den Ouden has developed a video game prototype that will help aphasia patients with their rehabilitation. Two of the common problems associated with aphasia are difficulty accessing the right words and once retrieved, articulating those words. “Previous research suggests that repetitious training, or drilling, may be beneficial to improving patients’ ability to retrieve and articulate the correct words,” says Den Ouden. “However, this type of therapy is not often used by clinicians because patients lose their motivation due to the repetitive nature of the exercise.”

Earlier studies have also demonstrated that providing a rhythm to which speech output can be timed can lead to positive outcomes for patients related to naming and fluency. To reconcile the challenges and benefits of repetitious training with aphasia patients, Den Ouden and his colleagues have created a new video application, the Name Game. The game shows a photo of a common object or animal (e.g., a goat), which the player then names. During this exchange, the application assesses the speed and fluency of the player’s response and provides feedback.

“A gaming environment helps overcome motivational challenges by providing an incentive to score points through accurate and timely naming,” says Den Ouden. “At the same time, it provides instantaneous feedback on naming performance, which is critical to helping the patient make significant improvements.”

I decided to attend the MSP program at USC because they had a wide variety of developing research...I knew the program provided many opportunities to gain clinical experience with diverse patient populations in an array of settings.

-Katherine Pensa, Master of Speech Pathology Student

Though the application is still in the early stages, Den Ouden’s team is actively working to prepare it for use by clinicians and patients. For example, COMD Master of Speech Pathology (MSP) student Katherine Pensa, who works with Den Ouden in his lab, has received a grant to fund research on the topic from Lee Silverman Voice Treatment (LSVT) Global Inc.

A 2015 Magna Cum Laude Graduate of USC’s College of Nursing, Pensa will use her LSVT Global Student Small Grant for Treatment Efficacy Studies with Neurologically Impaired Patients to test the Name Game with two aphasia patients. She chose the Arnold School for her degree because of opportunities like this one. “I decided to attend the MSP program at USC because they had a wide variety of developing research,” she says. “In addition, I knew the program provided many opportunities to gain clinical experience with diverse patient populations in an array of settings.”

Pensa believes this experience, particularly her work in Den Ouden’s Neurolinguistics Lab, helped her to be selected for her grant. “Dr. Den Ouden has been supportive and encouraging of my goals,” she says. “I am grateful for his guidance throughout the research process.” Long-term, she’d like to work as a speech-language pathologist in an outpatient setting that offers a diverse caseload, and she knows her research experience, along with the rigorous curriculum, within the COMD department will help prepare her for that career. “I would encourage future students to find a topic or patient population that they are interested in and get involved in research in that field,” Pensa says.

As the research team pushes forward with this “game-changer” for aphasia rehabilitation, they are engaging in a number of activities to prepare it for dissemination to the patients who wait for it. From testing the application through grants such as Pensa’s to sharing their progress at events and applying for additional funding, they are determined to help aphasia patients improve their communication abilities with their innovative and engaging approach.