Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI) Founding Director and Institute Scientist Emeritus John Whyte, MD, PhD recently discussed his career, research, and life outside of science on the People Behind the Science podcast hosted by Marie McNeely, PhD.
During the interview, we learn about Dr. Whyte’s interests beyond research and medicine, including his passion for music. He also describes some of the key mentors and important steps along his career that led him in helping to create MRRI.
January was a busy and productive month for MRRI scientists and staff as we continue to remotely foster connections and collaborations with neurorehabilitation experts from other leading institutions to further advance neurorehabilitation research.
As part of the MossRehab Shrier Family Topics in Rehabilitation Science Lecture Series, MRRI welcomed back a former MRRI postdoctoral fellow, Denise Harvey, PhD as a visiting speaker. A Research Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Harvey presented her work on using noninvasive brain stimulation to enhance recovery in people with aphasia.
Brenda Rapp, PhD, also joined us virtually to present in MRRI’s Institute Forum. Dr. Rapp is working to better understand language recovery after stroke or other brain injury. She serves as a Professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins University.
New Research Collaborations
Amanda Rabinowitz, PhD, will collaborate with investigators from the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana in Indianapolis on a project funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). Dr. Rabinowitz will serve as a site principal investigator on a multi-site study led by Flora Hammond, MD to examine chronic disease management in people with traumatic brain injury (TBI). This project will leverage resources of the MossRehab TBI Model System as well as TBI Model Systems across the country. By producing new knowledge to address evidence gaps in the management of brain injury as a chronic condition, the research team looks to reduce mortality and improve health, function and quality of life for people with TBIs.
Dylan Edwards, PhD, will work alongside Hermano Igo Krebs, PhD, from MIT as co-chair of a Special Interest Group on Rehabilitation Robotics for the World Federation for Neurorehabilitation (WFNR). In this role, Dr. Edwards will further the development of rehabilitation robotics through meetings and educational activities during the WFNR World Congress and beyond.
We are proud to announce that Gabriella Vigliocco, PhD, was recently named among the 2021 Fellows of the Cognitive Science Society, a global professional organization that connects scientists from diverse research fields to advance our understanding of the human mind. Fellows are elected yearly based on the sustained excellence and impact of their research on the Cognitive Science community.
Founded in 1979, the Cognitive Science Society has selected fewer than 200 scientists to be honored as Fellows. Dr. Vigliocco now holds this prestigious distinction among renowned researchers, including Alfonso Caramazza, Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Susan Carey, and Michael Posner.
A Professor of the Psychology of Language at that University College London and a Scientist in Residence at MossRehab Research Institute (MRRI) since 2017, Dr. Vigliocco discusses her research and this exciting honor.
Q: What were your initial thoughts when first receiving the news about becoming a Cognitive Science Society Fellow?
I was really excited, it is a great honor! And it is always incredibly nice that someone among your peers nominated you without knowing it. It is an important reminder that we should find time to promote the work of others.
Q: Is there a particular Fellow who you particularly respect or have considered a role model?
There are many on that list that I’ve considered as role models: Larry Barsalou, Kay Bock, Gary Dell, Pim Levelt, Jay McClelland, Susan Goldin-Meadow, and Barbara Twersky.
Q: Can you describe some of your works’ key findings and their impacts on the cognitive science community?
I’d like to think that I’ve contributed to and led a shift in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics from studying language as a symbolic capacity that was evolved, learned, and used separately from the rest of human cognition, to one in which language is grounded in basic sensorimotor functions that should be studied in its ecological niche.
Our work on abstract concepts is one example of precisely moving our thinking of language and conceptual knowledge from purely symbolic to grounded. My group provided the first evidence that abstract words and concepts (e.g., idea) are rooted in the neural system processing emotions rather than high-level symbolic operations. Thus, we brought attention to emotional experience as key in providing grounding to concepts (going beyond a sensory-motor view of embodiment). This finding resulted serendipitously while re-assessing the difference between concrete and abstract word processing. It was a genuinely new discovery and took us some time to convince the cognitive science community. Our finding has important implications for development. We have demonstrated that younger children are better able to learn abstract words that have emotional connotations.
Our current work investigates language learning and processing in its ecological niche ( face-to-face communication). Language is usually defined as speech or text, ignoring the multimodal cues that accompany speech in face-to-face communication. This is despite the fact that the brain learns and processes language mostly in face-to-face contexts. In our current work, we focus on the multimodal cues (points, gestures, object manipulations, eye gaze) in learning new words and concepts and in processing language. In collaboration with MRRI scientist Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, we have identified the brain networks engaged in coordinating and integrating speech with gestures for the first time. This is the first step in characterizing the neural substrate of multimodal language.
Q: How have collaborations shaped your research?
Collaborations make my research possible. First, I am a social researcher, meaning that I develop my best ideas by talking to others. Second, I am an interdisciplinary researcher. I fully believe that to tackle the broader, more interesting, and pressing questions, we need to go outside our silos and work across disciplines at different analysis levels. As such, I can only conduct my research in collaboration with others. I have been extremely fortunate to have always encountered excellent collaborators across the years, including talented scientists at MRRI. In addition to making my research possible, these collaborations have enormously enriched my personal life.
Q: What do you think junior researchers should be doing now to become leaders in their field?
Being a junior researcher is far more difficult nowadays than it was twenty or thirty years ago. The competition is so much harsher, and there is constant pressure toward publishing and obtaining grant funding. My advice would be not to focus exclusively on research topics that are mainstream, fashionable, or “hot” at the moment. Instead, dare to venture into uncharted territories and exploring less trodden paths, especially those at boundaries between different disciplines.
John Whyte, MD, PhD, founding director and institute scientist emeritus for MRRI, was recently interviewed in an episode of the Mind Your Brain Podcast. During the interview, Dr. Whyte discusses how he became interested in brain injury research, how research guides brain injury treatment and rehabilitation, challenges in this line of research, the important work being done within the Moss Traumatic Brain Injury Model System, and his goals for continuing to improve rehabilitation and rehabilitation research.
Mind Your Brain Podcast is produced by the Mind Your Brain Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing patient-centered conferences and resources for people with traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Dr. Shailesh Kantak PT, PhD, was recently awarded tenure at Arcadia University where he serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy. This honor recognizes Dr. Kantak’s many accomplishments in both teaching and research over the past six years. In addition to his position at Arcadia University, Dr. Kantak directs the Neuroplasticity and Motor Behavior Laboratory at Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI). This joint appointment between MRRI and Arcadia University allows him to pursue his two passions: neurorehabilitation research and its translation to clinical practice.
Dr. Kantak is a clinician-scientist, educator, and thought leader in his field. His early clinical experience as a neurologic physical therapist led him to pursue translational research in neurorehabilitation. In the Neuroplasticity and Motor Behavior Laboratory, he conducts research focused on understanding the brain-behavior relationship for motor control and learning, with an overarching goal of advancing theory-driven, evidence-informed strategies to augment recovery in individuals with neuromuscular disorders. His current research, funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), Albert Einstein Society, and MRRI’s peer review committee, investigates behavioral and neural underpinnings of bimanual coordination as well as motor learning after stroke.
Dr. Kantak is extremely passionate about teaching and translating scientific principles emerging from neuroscience research into clinical practice. He teaches neuroscience and neurorehabilitation within the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) curriculum at Arcadia University. As part of an innovative, case-based DPT curriculum, he collaboratively teaches with other faculty in the department and clinicians in the community, many of whom are expert clinicians at MossRehab. He loves inspiring his students to contemplate the links between neuroscience and rehabilitation, which he believes this makes them wiser clinicians, critical thinkers, and life-long learners. His students admire his inspiring and engaging approach to teaching neuroscience and neurorehabilitation. In addition to teaching, Dr. Kantak also participates in collaborative research with other faculty at Arcadia University.
The joint position between MRRI and Arcadia university helps develop and foster researchers and teachers like Dr. Kantak. The dual responsibilities of teaching and research are often time-consuming and arduous. However, Dr. Kantak draws energy from his students, research assistants, and colleagues at both institutions. He labels them as the “essential ingredients” for his success. These synergistic partnerships between institutions are critical for long-term support and advancement of science as well as the translation of important research into clinical practice.
More than two million Americans are affected by aphasia, an acquired language impairment commonly resulting from stroke that affects the ability to remember and express words. Affected by the loss of words, these individuals also experience the loss of friendships and opportunities for community engagement.
Sharon M. Antonucci, PhD, CCC-SLP, recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to evaluate an animal-assisted treatment for persons with aphasia entitled The Persons with Aphasia Training Dogs (PATD) Program. Targeting the psychosocial consequences of aphasia, including loss of self-confidence and social isolation, this study will harness the strengths of the individual with aphasia and the benefits of human-animal interaction.
The goals of the program are to:
Determine whether people with aphasia, through participation in the PATD program, can learn and implement positive reinforcement techniques to train dogs in basic obedience skills
Assess the feasibility of delivering the program in two service delivery models, with family dogs and shelter-dwelling dogs.
Focusing on these goals, the study team will demonstrate the viability of administering, and quantifying the effects of, canine-assisted aphasia treatment.
Although aphasia is, by definition, a difficulty with words, a major consequence of this condition is the not just finding the words to communicate, but, rather, the social isolation resulting from the loss of words. Consideringthat individuals with aphasia retain the drive to communicate and pragmatic communication skills such as use of ‘body language’, facial expression, and voice tone , they make ideal candidates to work with domestic animals who attend as much, if not more, to how we communicate than to what we say.
This PATD program will provide the foundation to expand aphasia rehabilitation research that targets the handicapping effects of aphasia to include rehabilitation techniques that leverage the benefits of human-animal interaction. In doing so, it aims to help participants live well with aphasia by increasing their confidence and social engagement.
Erica Middleton, PhD, was invited to discuss her career and her life outside of the lab in an interview for the People Behind the Science podcast. Dr. Middleton is an Institute Scientist and Director of the Language and Learning Laboratory at MRRI. In her research, Dr. Middleton works with both healthy speakers, as well as people who have experienced language impairment due to stroke (called aphasia), to better understand how words are mentally represented and produced.
In her conversation with podcast host Marie McNeely, PhD, Dr. Middleton, discusses one of her current research projects examining how individual differences may inform which treatment techniques should be used clinically to address word finding problems in people with aphasia. These word-finding problems are defined by an individual’s inability to express familiar words, such as the names of common objects. Beyond talking about her lab’s current research, Dr. Middleton shares her path to joining the team at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute, her love of organic gardening, and excellent advice for aspiring scientists.
Erica Barhorst-Cates, PhD has served as a Postdoctoral Fellow at MRRI in the Cognition and Action and Cognitive Motor Learning Labs since August 2019. She sat down with us to talk about life in the lab, her exciting research and scientific career as well as her personal passions.
1) Tell us more about your academic background and training
I received my PhD in Psychology in 2019 from the University of Utah with a specialty in Cognition and Neural Science. While I primarily worked with neurotypical young adults in graduate school, I’ve conducted research across the age spectrum working with neurotypical children and older adults. My research topicfocuses on spatial cognition or the way we perceive and interact with the world around us. Through this research, I hope to provide a better understanding of individual differences in spatial cognition, whether due to age, gender, visual status, or movement experience. For example, much of my prior work focused on understanding how low vision caused by disease or temporary visual restrictions impacts spatial navigation. I also conducted research to understand how experience with sports and other highly-trained movement activities (such as dance) affects spatial-cognitive abilities. Aside from movement, I researched how a person’s experience in different environments (e.g., rural versus urban) impacts their ability and strategies for spatial navigation. In my research, I have used different methods such as real-world navigation, virtual reality (VR), and more recently, kinematic motion analysis.
2) What attracted you to science and the field of neurorehabilitation?
I was initially attracted to science because I wanted to understand how people with unique and highly-trained skillsets may perceive and understand the world differently than others. I grew up with a ballet studio as a second home and gained a fascination with how an individual’s dancing experiences could shape their cognitive abilities. Do dancers have better spatial memory for sequences of movements? Are dancers better at imagining movements, or are they more likely to need to directly experience and manipulate things to understand them? Most interestingly, if dancers do have unique or better cognitive abilities in certain realms, can we use dance as a way to improve those abilities in other individuals?
These questions guided my previous work and inspired me to pursue postdoctoral training in the field of neurorehabilitation. Since early in my research career, I have longed to do work that could eventually help people. As an undergraduate, I developed and taught a year-long Dance Movement Therapy class for children with Autism and loved the more direct application of research. While my graduate work focused on understanding the spatial abilities of neurotypical individuals, especially those possessing particularly good spatial abilities, my postdoctoral research has aimed more at understanding how stroke may impair spatial abilities. Although I do not directly work on therapeutic approaches, my hope is that one day my research could inform the development of new treatments.
3) Why did you choose to work at MRRI?
I chose to work at MRRI because of the patient-focused research and the availability of advanced research equipment, including virtual reality, motion tracking, and robotic testing devices. For many years, I wanted to do more applied research with patient populations. MRRI provides the perfect setting to do so. I was very interested in the research questions addressed by Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, and Aaron Wong, PhD, which also attracted me to the institute.
4) What are some of the research questions you currently working to address?
I currently have two primary lines of work: one related to movement imitation and one related to spatial navigation. Along with my colleagues Dr. Buxbaum, Dr. Wong, and Mitchell Isaacs, we recently completed a project aimed at understanding how people imitate movements using kinematic motion tracking in young neurotypical adults. We currently are working on another project with the goal of better understanding movement imitation in stroke patients. In this study, we are using virtual reality to identify which spatial perspective (first-person or third-person) is best for viewing and learning an upper arm movement.
I’m also excited to say that I was recently awarded an Albert Einstein Society research grant to pursue a project aimed at understanding navigation deficits after stroke. We argue that navigation deficits may be underreported in stroke because the currently-used assessments do not fully capture the extent of impairment. While prior work primarily tested patients’ abilities to perform navigation tasks through self-report questionnaires or on desktop computer simulations, our study will have participants navigate through the MRRI building and learn the locations of landmarks. Patients also will complete several measures to assess their skill with walking, turning, and completing cognitive tasks. We will relate participants’ performances on these measures to their performances on the navigation task to identify factors that could relate to spatial navigation.
5) What have been some of the key findings of your research?
In our first movement imitation study, we found that people can imitate movements either by paying attention to the motion of the hand through space or by paying attention to how the arm is configured. This is exciting because it suggests that there are multiple ways to instruct a person on how to successfully imitate, which is a key component of motor learning. If an individual has difficulty with one type of imitation (matching their limb positions to the limb positions of another person), a therapist could instruct a patient to use an alternate imitation method, which could improve movement recovery outcomes. While we have so far only studied this phenomenon in neurotypical individuals, we hope to begin a study with patients who experienced a stroke.
6) Can you tell us more about the impact or potential impact of your research?
Spatial navigation is an activity linked to maintaining a high quality of life. The results from the navigation study should tell researchers which measures are most sensitive in predicting difficulties with navigation. These findings are important because, as previously mentioned, we have reason to believe that navigation difficulties are underreported in individuals with stroke. This is because spatial navigation is rarely queried in rehabilitation and the measures used by many researchers have not assessed people’s abilities in real-world situations, where navigators must remember locations and route information while also maintaining balance, walking, turning, and paying attention to their surroundings. Our real-world navigation test and background battery of tests should allow us to more accurately understand how stroke may impair a person’s navigation and other related abilities.. These results could help identify individuals who have difficulty with navigation, thus also identifying individuals who may benefit from targeted rehabilitation.
7) What is one of the biggest challenges faced in your work?
One of the biggest challenges for me is determining how to measure and study some of the complicated cognitive and physical processes in which I’m interested. For instance, spatial navigation is a complex activity that involves so many processes that it becomes difficult to isolate and study a single component. The complex real-world behavior of spatial navigation that does not occur as an isolated event is actually an exciting reason to study it. .When navigating, people almost always simultaneously do multiple tasks. There also are individual differences in experience with navigating, skill, priorities, anxiety, and strategies that influence a person’s ability and behavior. In addition, navigation is an extremely important activity for daily functioning, and one that declines even in healthy aging for various reasons – some which are known and some which still must be undetermined. While I find it all fascinating, the complexity makes it challenging to study.
8) What do you see as the next step in your career? Will any experiences or skills from your fellowship at MRRI be particularly useful going forward?
I still have about a year and a half of my postdoctoral fellowship, and I’m not sure exactly of my next step. I would, ultimately, love to become a professor in a psychology department at a university with a versatile research program that includes both patient and neurotypical populations. Once my husband finishes his medical residency in Family Medicine, I likely will apply to universities and see where life takes us. In the meantime, I aim to learn and experience as much as possible!
During my fellowship, I have learned many important skills and had many experiences that I will take with me wherever I go: from sophisticated data analysis techniques and how to use a critical approach to the ins and outs of grant acquisition. I also learned to think about the translational implications of research, which I believe is an extremely important component of science that is sometimes lost. Finally, I have met wonderful people and colleagues who I now consider as friends that I’d like to have for the rest of my life.
9) What is one of your favorite MRRI memories?
Our lab decided to go on a socially-distanced kayaking trip down the Brandywine River in September, which was a lot of fun. More than ten of us each had our own kayaks and took turns navigating the “rapids” and spotting bald eagles. It was such an enjoyable lab outing and so beneficial to get out into nature and reset! I am glad to be a part of a group of individuals who value both work and play.
10) What do you like to do in your free time?
I am an avid outdoors enthusiast and really love hiking, camping, kayaking, and spending time in nature with my husband. I’m very active and love dancing, yoga, and working out. I also am a fervent reader of both fiction and non-fiction books. I am especially passionate about traveling. I love planning trips—researching and visiting new places, meeting new people, and trying new foods. To mitigate my wanderlust during quarantine, we have done a lot of gardening and cooking/baking..
MRRI Director Dylan Edwards, PhD, is looking forward to collaborating with colleagues at the Medical University of South Carolina as they establish The National Center of Neuromodulation for Rehabilitation (NC NM4R) with funding recently awarded from the National Institutes of Health. The Medical University of South Carolina is a world-class institution with a history of excellence in education, research, and patient care spanning nearly 200 years. The NC NM4R will serve as a hub for generating and integrating new knowledge in the area of neuromodulation with a focus on how this knowledge can be used to enhance rehabilitation. The NC NM4R is one of six centers in the NIH Medical Rehabilitation Research Resource Network. This Center will provide important support for investigators using neuromodulation methods as research tools or potential treatments in rehabilitation.
Dr. Edwards is a renowned expert in applications of non-invasive brain stimulation in neurorehabilitation across a variety of patient populations, including stroke, cerebral palsy, and spinal cord injury. As a consultant on this NIH award, Dr. Edwards will share his expertise through NC NM4R lectures and workshops. A virtual workshop has been planned in which Dr. Edwards and other leaders in the field will discuss using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for motor mapping in neurorehabilitation. Motor mapping during rehabilitation can provide valuable insights on the control of movement and allow for more precise targeting of the application of neuromodulation therapies. Currently, there is no consensus within scientific and clinical communities regarding mapping protocols or analysis methods. In this upcoming workshop, Dr. Edwards plans to cover innovations in TMS mapping techniques that may inform how researchers and clinicians use motor mapping in rehabilitation research and practice.
Collaborations such as this provide valuable opportunities for MRRI scientists to share their expertise and connect with researchers at other top tier research institutions to make important contributions to the field of rehabilitation research.