The Arnold School of Public Health’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD), at the University of South Carolina, 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 Dr. Dirk den Ouden and his collaborators are doing just that—through an innovative and interactive video game platform.
Together with Computer Science and Engineering’s Dr. Jijun Tang and Mr. Jeremiah Shepherd, Dr. 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 Dr. 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, Dr. 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 Dr. Den Ouden. “At the same time, it provides instantaneous feedback on naming performance, which is critical to helping the patient make significant improvements.”
Though the application is still in the early stages, Dr. 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 Ms. Katherine Pensa, who works with Dr. 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, Ms. 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.