As 2020 comes to a close, we are excited to be working on our annual MRRI Letters newsletter that will shareupdates and highlights from the past year. Join our email list to receive a copy of MRRI Letters in early 2021.
MRRI team members also are looking forward to celebrating the holidays remotely together during our annual holiday party scheduled virtually this year on December 13th.
Even as the year winds down, our scientists continue to be highly productive in publishing and disseminating their research. Just last month, MRRI scientists had four papers accepted for publication or published in peer-reviewed journals. In addition, MRRI researchers participated in virtual presentations and poster sessions at the International Symposium on Neuromodulation, the Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society, and the Specialization Course in Neurophysiology and Neuromodulation at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. Locally, MRRI Director Dylan Edwards, PhD, presented his work on recovery of voluntary motor function in chronic spinal cord injury as part of the MossRehab Shrier Topics in Rehabilitation Science Lecture Series.
Further, we are pleased to announce that MRRI Associate Director Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, was appointed to the Program Committee of the American Society of Neurorehabilitation (ASNR). In this role, Dr. Buxbaum will work with other leading rehabilitation researchers to oversee the scientific program and assist with preparations for the ASNR’s Annual Meeting in 2021.
In the coming weeks, we look forward to continuing our progress on ongoing research projects as well as taking time over the upcoming holidays to re-energize in preparation for the new year ahead.
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.
1) Can you tell us more about your current position and where you are now?
I am currently in a transition phase as my husband and I work to synchronize the next steps of our careers. Both of us are pursuing academic careers. It does not mean that I am bored – quite the opposite. I am continuing my research at MRRI on several projects and have started an exciting new collaboration with the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of North Carolina.
2) How did you first get interested in rehabilitation research?
My undergraduate and Master’s degrees are in speech-language pathology. My interest in rehabilitation research came directly from realizing, through my studies and clinical placements, that there is a great need for a solid scientific basis for clinical work. I also discovered that I greatly enjoy the process of scientific thinking and conducting research.
3) Can you describe your academic background and the steps that led you to your fellowship at MRRI?
Deciding what to study after high school was hard for me. I knew that I wanted to continue my studies at a university, but considered vastly different fields from chemistry to psychology. Ultimately, I decided to pursue speech-language pathology and special education. The curriculum appealed to me because of its interdisciplinary nature; it covered subjects from philosophy and linguistics to anatomy and physiology. My young self also was hoping to become involved in a career that could make a difference in people’s lives. Speech-language pathology checked all the boxes.
The idea of pursuing research and doctoral studies never crossed my mind until suddenly it seemed like the most logical next step. In Estonia, where I completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, the final requirement for both of these degrees was a thesis. After completing my Bachelor’s thesis, I realized that working on my thesis had been the most exciting experience in my undergraduate studies. Discussing this with my advisor, he invited me to join a large research project. I was the youngest and the least experienced person on the team and, thus, had the most to learn. I worked on that project in parallel with my Master’s studies. After graduating, it was clear to me that I wanted to pursue a research career and needed to find a Ph.D. program to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills.
It is a complicated story that eventually led me from my little Northern home country of Estonia to the University of Arizona (UofA) located in the sunny and wonderful Sonoran Desert. The story does involve the world-class reputation of the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at UofA, excellent potential mentors, the love of my life for 14 years and counting, and probably a good amount of luck. I had the opportunity to work with and be mentored by some amazing scientists at UofA who effortlessly solidified my career choice and continue to inspire me today.
4) Why did you choose to conduct postdoctoral research at MRRI?
So many reasons drew me here: the outstanding and highly impactful aphasia research developed at MRRI, exceptional mentors, interest in experiencing a different setting apart from a university, integration with a world-class rehabilitation hospital at MossRehab, excellent resources (particularly in terms of participant recruitment, which can be a major obstacle in my line of work), and so much more.
5) What experiences or skills from your fellowship at MRRI do you think will be most important in your career going forward?
This is a difficult question. I have gained a very rich experience for launching the career in rehabilitation research that I want to pursue. I learned a lot, from the nuts and bolts of conducting rehabilitation research to the big picture issues in the field, which—as anyone in MRRI is ready to explain—is interestingly unique and different from its better-known cousin, pharmacological research. I have many more friends and colleagues within my profession compared to three years ago, when I started here, and I have been a part of the everyday life of two successful labs within a successful research institute. All sorts of skills and ideas seep through one’s clothes through active participation in an environment such as this.
6) What did you enjoy most about working at MRRI?
I enjoy the focus and collective enthusiasm for rehabilitation research. MRRI has a very collegial yet stimulating environment for research. The institute is filled with people who can, and happily do, sink their teeth into any rehabilitation research question. This pertains not only to scientists but to other staff members, such as clinicians and research assistants. The competence and enthusiasm of my colleagues make for very lively meetings and talks at MRRI. These experiences prepare you for whatever may come once outside the institute’s walls. At MRRI, many problems are solved informally simply by wandering into the kitchenette and talking to whoever is brewing their coffee or waiting for the microwave to announce lunch-time. In addition to the scientific community, it is the very capable administrative staff who make work at MRRI so enjoyable. The administrative staff typically addresses your problems before those problems even take shape. This supportive yet stimulating environment makes a difference because it is easy to feel lonely and stressed in this demanding line of work.
7) What was one of your most memorable moments at MRRI?
Quite a selection of moments rushes into my mind. One of them is seeing my first participant with aphasia in the first experiment that I set up at MRRI. I work on a phenomenon called speech entrainment, which refers to the act of speaking in synchrony with another person. Typical speakers are extremely good at performing this task. Remarkably, some people with aphasia, whose independent speech is very limited, also can produce much more speech under speech entrainment. It was fascinating to witness that phenomenon for the first time in person.
8) What is something you are working on now that you are really excited about?
Most of my career so far has focused on understanding acquired neurogenic communication disorders such as aphasia and apraxia of speech. The long-term goal is to find better, more effective ways to remediate aphasia and apraxia of speech. At MRRI, I have been able to take the next step towards this goal. My current study explores the possibility of using speech entrainment—the phenomenon previously described —to help people with aphasia and/or apraxia of speech improve their independent speech. We now know that speech entrainment helps many people with aphasia to produce more speech. Now, we want to know if practicing with entrainment will help them speak independently after practice when the entrainment support is removed.
9) Can you share some of the key findings from your research and the impacts your work may have on rehabilitation?
One key finding from my research is with the underlying mechanism of apraxia of speech – a speech disorder that affects the planning of speech movements. Speaking is an incredibly complex skill that involves many levels of processing from forming a thought to precisely-timed muscle contractions in the systems for articulation, phonation, and breath support. My research is focused on the operations that translate a verbal idea in a speaker’s mind into the physical movements that ultimately produce speech. Currently, we assume that this task is achieved via planning chunks called motor programs. Rather than planning each muscle contraction separately, we plan larger units that may correspond, for example, to a syllable in a person’s speech. My research has shown that while motor programs are largely intact in people with apraxia of speech and aphasia, the process of accessing them is impaired. This finding is important clinically because most current treatment approaches explicitly or implicitly assume that the motor programs are not intact in apraxia of speech and must be reestablished in the context of treatment. My research suggests that effective treatments should focus instead or in addition to the process of accessing and selecting the intended motor programs. The next question is how that can be achieved in a treatment context.
10) Can you tell us about some of your interests or hobbies outside of your research? These days I spend quite a bit of time playing in the sandbox, throwing little rocks in the stream, singing made-up songs, and collecting acorns – I am a mother to a two-year-old. I have also collected True American Experiences for quite some time. More recently, I have become a circular economy enthusiast, that is, I am fascinated with the ideas that envision our economy and everyday lives.
MRRI Director Dylan Edwards, PhD, presented a virtual seminar on combinatorial approaches in robotic rehabilitation at the World Congress for NeuroRehabilitation, and also served on a panel on biases in research and research funding at the American Medical Rehabilitation Providers Association Educational Virtual Conference and Expo.
Work on cognitive planning for action imitation from the laboratory of MRRI Associate Director Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, was presented at the Neuromatch 3.0 online conference. In addition, new findings from Dr. Buxbaum’s group on audiovisual comprehension in people with aphasia was presented at the virtual meeting of the Society for the Neurobiology of Language.
Erica Middleton, PhD, served as an author on a poster presentation at the Society for the Neurobiology of Language that shared their recent data on the neural bases of conceptual combination in people with aphasia after stroke. Dr. Middleton also presented a poster at the virtual meeting of the Academy of Aphasia on how distributed practice and criterion level affect word retrieval in people with aphasia.
John Whyte, MD, PhD, participated in a variety of events at the recent American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine (ACRM) virtual conference. He co-led a half-day course on the Rehabilitation Treatment Specification System (RTSS) and presented a symposium on how to use the RTSS to improve research design and the clinical implementation of research. Dr. Whyte also spoke about improving access to sleep apnea diagnosis for people with acute traumatic brain injury to maximize the outcomes of neurorehabilitation. In addition, he served as a panelist for the Women in Rehabilitation Science Symposium.
At the ACRM conference, MRRI Institute Scientist Umesh Venkatesan, PhD, presented research from his lab that examined the associations between the duration of post-traumatic amnesia and memory impairment in people with chronic moderate-to-severe traumatic brain injury. We are proud to announce that Dr. Venkatesan’s poster was chosen to receive the Brain Injury Interdisciplinary Special Interest Group Early Career Poster Award.
Amanda Rabinowitz, PhD, also spoke at ACRM as part of a symposium on best practice interventions for managing acutely confused patients during inpatient rehabilitation.
These virtual conferences provided valuable opportunities for MRRI scientists to share their work, hear more about studies conducted by researchers from around the world, generate new ideas, and reconnect with collaborators and colleagues.
A few months ago, we chatted with one of MRRI’s cherished research participants, Tyrone Ogburn. In the ten plus years since having a stroke, Tyrone has participated in several research studies, making him an ideal candidate not only to talk about how stroke affects one’s life but what it’s like to participate in research on the behavioral and neurological effects of stroke.
Almost thirteen years ago in March of 2008, Tyrone was living in Atlanta, Georgia. A few days after visiting his friends and family in Philadelphia for his birthday, he woke up not feeling well. When his mom came to wake him in his room, she could tell from their conversation that something was wrong. Thankfully, she convinced him to call an ambulance. Like many stroke survivors, the rest is hard for Tyrone to remember. At only 45 years old, Tyrone was in good health and working in the medical field as a Certified Nursing Assistant.
Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute Helped with Speech Problems
After his stroke, Tyrone was diagnosed with aphasia, a language disorder that affects a person’s ability to produce and/or understand speech. Tyrone spent months in therapy at MossRehab after his stroke to overcome this speech problems. That’s how he discovered the MossRehab Aphasia Center and Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI) – and soon became a research participant in an aphasia study
Naming problems or having difficulty fluently producing words for common objects, familiar people’s names, and known places is almost always present in aphasia. That was the case for Tyrone. A recent language study in which Tyrone participated with MRRI involved practice-targeting his naming problems. The study, conducted by the Language and Learning Lab and directed by MRRI Institute ScientistDr. Erica Middleton, identifies what kinds of naming practice promote the strongest, longest-lasting improvements in naming ability across a large group of people with aphasia. By studying individuals like Tyrone in a large group of people, the study will improve MossRehab’s understanding about which kind of person with aphasia benefits most from which kind of naming treatment.
Research Helps Tyrone Help Other Stroke Victims
When asked why he decided to participate in research after his stroke, Tyrone said, “I want somebody else to know that if I can do it, someone else can too.” Tyrone talks about how much research helped him express his feelings when he was still unable to communicate effectively after his stroke. He further explained how the patience and understanding of everyone in his first study encouraged him to continue volunteering for new research opportunities.
Tyrone said, “I wanted to do it again because it’s a really good purpose for the speech problems”.
While Tyrone’s interests in research are mostly language-related because of his aphasia diagnosis, he has participated in many other MRIII research studies. Last year Tyrone was a participant in an ongoing study in the Neuroplasticity and Motor Behavior Lab directed by MRRI Institute ScientistDr. Shailesh Kantak. This study is examining how stroke can affect upper limb coordination. He also completed a study in the Cognitive Motor Learning Lab directed by MRRI Institute ScientistDr. Aaron Wong thataims to determine how people use visual information versus sensations to guide movements.
Tyrone Encourages Family Members to Participate in Research
Tyrone has valued his research participation so much that when his aunt suffered a stroke last year, he encouraged her enrollment in our Research Registry. When Tyrone isn’t volunteering his time to participate in research, he enjoys a variety of fulfilling activities. He loves taking his dog, Sadie, to nearby parks and walking around their neighborhood in South Philadelphia. In addition, he likes to explore local flea markets and shops as well as having cookouts with his friends and family. Research participants like Tyrone are critical for our mission at MRRI to improve the lives of individuals with neurological disabilities through research. We value the time and commitment of all of the volunteers who contribute to MRRI research and appreciate the opportunities to share our research with these individuals and their families.
Discovering the Relationship of Childhood Experiences to Brain Trauma Injuries
Dr. Venkatesan, director of the Brain Trauma and Behavior Lab, will investigate the relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to behavioral health in adults with moderate-to-severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). ACEs such as physical and psychological abuse are associated with many negative health effects such as increased risks for sustaining a TBI among the general adult population. Accounting for earlier life experiences may prove important in prognosis and treatment planning for individuals after TBI.
Findings from Dr. Venkatesan’s work will serve as the foundation for a research program further evaluating how health status after injury reflects early social conditions that “set the tone” for life. Results will help build a framework for treatment that integrates experiential variables with less-modifiable factors (e.g., demographics, injury severity) to personalize interventions and mitigate treatment barriers for optimized recovery. Learn more about the Brain Trauma and Behavior Lab at MRRI.
Using Virtual Reality to Determine Arm Preference After Stroke
Dr. Kantak, who directs the Neuroplasticity and Motor Behavior Lab, will collaborate with Cognition and Action Lab DirectorLaurel Buxbaum, PsyD, to examine how cognitive mechanisms of attention and effort influence arm choice and performance of 3-D reaching movements after stroke. The team will systematically manipulate cognitive effort by altering task difficulty and introducing a dual-task as participants reach to touch specified targets in a virtual reality (VR) environment.
Based on results, Dr. Kantak will determine if data supports the idea that under high-cognitive effort conditions, stroke patients will choose their less affected arm more frequently compared to low-cognitive effort conditions. Research also will determine if arm choice, as assessed in the VR environment, predicts actual preference in the real world using accelerometry. In addition, the team will explore how brain representation of the more affected arm relative to the less unaffected arm relates to the frequency of arm choice after stroke. This study will set the stage for future investigations to quantitatively assess and treat arm nonuse after stroke. Click here to learn more about VR research at MRRI.
Assessing Navigation Difficulties with Stroke Victims
Dr. Barhorst-Cates, NIH T32 postdoctoral fellow, along with Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, and Cognitive-Motor Learning Lab director Aaron Wong PhD, will study spatial navigation deficits in stroke patients. While approximately 30% of stroke victims report difficulties with moving about and remembering important locations and routes, patients rarely are assessed for navigation difficulties in a rehabilitation setting.
The researchers will test the navigation abilities of stroke patients as well as neurotypical individuals in a real-world environment. Tests will measure both movement (walking and balance) and cognitive abilities (memory and attention) of participants. The researchers will assess the relationship of these abilities to navigation as well as how lesion location in the brain affects performance. This project will offer a greater understanding of navigation deficits following stroke and the characteristics of individuals who might have difficulties with spatial navigation. Click here to learn more about MRRI’s NIH T32 training program.
Since its inception, MRRI has been dedicated to developing novel technologies, tools, and resources for scientists and clinicians in neurorehabilitation. For over ten years, MRRI scientists, clinicians, and collaborators have worked together to create the Rehabilitation Treatment Specification System, a standardized system for specifying any and all rehabilitation treatments. Last month, we published a new article on the MRRI blog highlighting the RTSS, how it was developed, and the important needs in the field that it addresses. We also shared a blog article describing a new clinical protocol recently developed by MRRI scientists and collaborators to guide care for patients with severe memory deficits as a result of acute traumatic brain injury.
In the past month, scientists at MRRI have also made valuable contributions to the field through publications and presentations. We are proud that our team had ten new papers published or accepted for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Dylan Edwards, PhD, participated in a virtual panel discussion hosted by the company Tyromotion on the technical, financial, and clinical benefits of implementing gait training devices in neurological therapy institutions, as well as the challenges to implementation. Further, Drs. Laurel Buxbaum, John Whyte, and Erica Middleton shared their work through presentations during the Institute Forum’s T32 Sessions. John Whyte, MD, PhD, also presented about measuring recovery and outcomes after brain injury as part of the Shrier Family Topics in Rehabilitation Science Series.
As we enter the final quarter of this year, we look forward to continuing to make progress remotely on work supported by ongoing research grants. We are also honored to announce that the MossRehab Aphasia Center has been awarded a new grant from the NIH to support research to assess an animal-assisted treatment program for adults with aphasia. This work will be led by Primary Investigator Sharon Antonucci, PhD, CCC-SLP, and we look forward to sharing more updates on this project in the coming months.
Understanding the impairments in motor function that humans with neurological damage experience following a brain injury or spinal cord injury could give scientists insight into opportunities to improve conventional rehabilitation treatment options and help develop more informed rehabilitation treatment strategies.
At the Human Motor Recovery Laboratory, researchers use contemporary techniques including non-invasive brain stimulation, neuroimaging, kinematics, and virtual reality, along with conventional rehabilitation therapies, to study and promote the motor recovery process.
Led by Director of MRRI Dylan Edwards, PhD, the laboratory is dedicated to finding the right combination of approaches to optimize the motor recovery process, while making it a more engaging and enjoyable experience for patients.
In this video, Dr. Edwards describes the different motor function restoration strategies used at the Human Motor Recovery Laboratory in its mission to make a difference in patients’ lives.
Rehabilitation week calls attention to the field of rehabilitation – a field that touches many lives yet is unfamiliar to many until it does. All branches of medicine seek to restore health, but rehabilitation seeks to restore function – that is, the ability to care for oneself, move about, interact with others, and more generally accomplish the life tasks that matter to us. For sudden acute illnesses, like a bout of gastroenteritis, one will likely return to normal function after recovery from the illness.
In contrast, many injuries and chronic illnesses unfortunately don’t result in full recovery (e.g., spinal cord injury, congestive heart failure), and others (e.g., lumbar disk herniation) may resolve physically but leave a person still unable to work or complete their daily activities.
Rehabilitation seeks to maximize function using a much broader set of tools than those that treat or cure the disease. Perhaps most familiar are the physical devices of rehabilitation: wheelchairs and computerized communication devices that let individuals with paralysis or speech problems function by other means. However, rehabilitation has something to offer virtually any condition that results in functional limitation.
Further, the field of rehabilitation can best serve patients by bringing together people with diverse backgrounds and skills to develop innovative treatments and deliver comprehensive care. Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI) and MossRehab are home to scientists and clinicians with expertise spanning clinical psychology, neuropsychology, cognitive neuroscience, physiatry, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, and other disciplines.
Our diverse team and cross-disciplinary approach to rehabilitation research allow us to make important contributions to the field to improve the lives of individuals with neurological disabilities. Below we introduce some of the dedicated individuals involved in rehabilitation research here, and the important roles they play in this large and varied enterprise.
My doctoral training focused on clinical psychology and neuropsychology, so I’ve always been attuned to clinical populations. A particular interest was understanding the underlying causes of the types of unusual behavior explored by neurologist Oliver Sacks, who wrote, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”—that is, patients in whom a specific cognitive or sensory-motor ability is affected by neurological damage, often leaving other abilities remarkably intact. An example is a disorder called limb apraxia, in which individuals with stroke or neurodegenerative disorders have lost the ability to use tools or imitate actions, despite their ability to describe the purpose of the tools, where they are found, and who might use them, despite adequate motor and sensory abilities.
Apraxia is a fine example of a complex disorder whose understanding is enriched by collaboration between researchers from multiple disciplines of scientific study, as well as clinicians: experts in motor control and arm function, language and aphasia, executive function, and memory all contribute different kinds of insights to our understanding.
Moreover, different methods of study, including neuroimaging and behavioral studies with both healthy and clinical populations have proven invaluable. This collaborative work in the Cognition and Action Lab at MRRI has yielded numerous advances in our understanding of how different brain structures contribute to distinct aspects of tool use and imitation tasks, and exactly how these processes may be disrupted by neurological disorders.
When we understand the underlying causes of dysfunction, we are better equipped to design interventions that directly target these deficits to facilitate optimal functioning.
Mary Ferraro, PhD, OTR/L
I have worked at MossRehab and the MRRI for over 35 years. Starting as a staff occupational therapist on the inpatient brain injury unit, I was able to take advantage of a research institute that valued working alongside clinicians. This opportunity caused me to examine patient performance and my practice in a more systematic way, leading to numerous research and clinical projects.
One of my current clinical responsibilities includes occupational therapy (OT) staff development, best exemplified by serving as coordinator for the MossRehab OT Fellowship Program in Physical Rehabilitation, an advanced therapy practice training program.
I have other education-related responsibilities for the brain injury center staff and the Moss Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Model System. Beyond the continual demand to orient new staff to the needs of individuals with brain injury, my education role seeks to improve day-to-day clinical processes using evidence to inform practice.
Over the past 18 months, Amanda Rabinowitz, PhD, and I have coordinated a knowledge translation project for patients with post-traumatic amnesia, recently published in Brain Injury. The success of the project, changing therapist questions during these patient interactions, hinged on understanding clinic routines, and creating best practices that were workable for all. I saw my role as bringing clinicians and researchers together to improve patient care.
Various research projects over the years enhanced my understanding of rehabilitation’s multidisciplinary scope. By participating in projects on naturalistic action analysis, classification of hemispatial neglect subtypes, and rehabilitation treatment specification, I have had the privilege to work alongside clinicians and researchers who want to understand rehabilitation needs better so that treatments can be enhanced.
I’m trained as a physiatrist (a physician specializing in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation) as well as in Cognitive Psychology. I spent the first 10 years of my career working half-time clinically caring for inpatients with severe traumatic brain injury and the other half engaged in research on the cognitive impairments that result from TBI.
Since the beginning of my career, I’ve been interested in the most severe brain injuries – the ones that result in prolonged or even permanent disorders of consciousness (DOC). When I began my career, such patients were systematically excluded from rehabilitation on the premise that their prognosis was hopeless and that they could not actively participate in rehabilitation.
Nevertheless, with some early grant funding, we established a demonstration treatment program, the Responsiveness Program, and showed that rigorous analytic methods could accurately establish a patient’s state of consciousness and track recovery.
Over the years as my research portfolio grew and I was asked to lead MRRI, my responsibilities shifted to focus fully on research, but my research agenda continued to be strongly shaped by my clinical experience and my interactions with clinical colleagues, patients, and families. I’m happy to say that, through my research and studies conducted by a number of collaborators, much has changed for individuals with DOC.
We now have accurate diagnostic tools, improved prognostic abilities, evidence that a substantial minority will have good long-term outcomes, and, most recently, treatments that can accelerate the recovery of consciousness. This has culminated in the publication of a new practice guideline related to DOC that, for the first time, advocates for intensive rehabilitation for this population, based on the evidence developed over the last couple of decades, and a renewed interest at NIH in studying recovery from coma.
I am a clinical researcher and speech-language pathologist, and I have recently begun my fourth year as the director of the MossRehab Aphasia Center. The Center was founded by Myrna Schwartz and Ruth Fink in 1996 to meet the long-term rehabilitation and social needs of those living with aphasia, an acquired language impairment most typically occurring as the result of a stroke.
The guiding principle of the Center is the Life Participation Approach to Aphasia, a goal of which is to collaborate with people with aphasia and their loved ones to help them meet their unique goals for themselves. Two of our recent projects highlight these collaborations.
Our longitudinal research study, a collaboration with new members of our conversation groups, is directed toward quantifying outcomes of participation in our aphasia activities center across the domains of linguistic impairment, functional communication, and quality of life.
Our newest aphasia center program is the Persons with Aphasia Training Dogs Program. The ‘nuts and bolts’ of the program are that people with aphasia learn positive reinforcement techniques to train dogs, either their own dog or a local shelter dog, in basic obedience skills (for example ‘sit’, ‘stay’).
The goals of the program are to harness what people with aphasia can do, rather than focusing on what is difficult for them, to capitalize on the physical and psychosocial benefits of human-animal interaction, and to combat social isolation by increasing feelings of confidence and self-efficacy through new skill learning.
I look forward to the prospect of continuing to work directly with and for people with aphasia in these, and other, projects to expand the impact of our Center beyond its physical boundaries, by incorporating our programs with the local community and by contributing to the evidence base demonstrating the impact that can be made Aphasia Centers founded on the life participation approach.
I started my career as a physical therapist and gained clinical expertise in neurologic physical therapy. My clinical experience shaped three important notions:
Rehabilitation greatly enhances patients’ quality of life
The brain has an incredible capacity to change with interventions
Despite rehabilitation efforts, different patients respond differently to interventions.
My research is inspired by my clinical experience and is strongly informed by my PhD in Biokinesiology, and post-doctoral training in neuroplasticity and motor control and learning.
My research in the Neuroplasticity and Motor Behavior Laboratory investigates behavioral and neurophysiologic factors that influence the performance and learning of motor skills in individuals with and without neurologic disorders. The overarching goal is to identify cognitive-motor processes and underlying neural substrates that implement control and learning of motor skills in order to optimize rehabilitation strategies.
One line of research in our laboratory investigates behavioral, neuroanatomic, and neurophysiologic correlates of deficits in the ability to coordinate two hands after stroke. The ability to coordinate two hands is critical for most activities of daily living but often overlooked in rehabilitation research and practice. Through our research, we help identify patients who have significant deficits in bimanual coordination, and we use targeted interventions to remediate those deficits.
The second line of research in our laboratory investigates optimal behavioral and noninvasive brain stimulation interventions that lead to faster and/or better motor recovery of arm function after stroke. Recovery of arm function relies on the ability of the brain to change with practice and repetition, often referred to as neuroplasticity. While modulating neuroplasticity may influence motor recovery globally, we recognize that one size does not fit all in stroke rehabilitation. So our focus is to identify behavioral and neurophysiologic markers of learning to help guide treatment protocols to be more individualized and effective.
Like all fields of healthcare, advances in rehabilitation care are dependent on research. Clinical rehabilitation is often a team sport, reflecting the fact that human function is a complex affair involving the interaction of the body’s physical structure, movement abilities, and cognitive processes.
Accordingly, members of many different disciplines have insights to contribute. The same goes for rehabilitation research: linking simple models of thought and movement to complex functional abilities, like making a meal or navigating the environment, requires the expertise of many kinds of scientists.
We’ve introduced you to just a few of the people involved in this exciting enterprise. We are fortunate at MossRehab and MRRI to have a wide array of skilled clinicians and scientists from many disciplines, and a supportive environment that encourages cross-talk and collaboration.
A team of researchers at MRRI and clinicians at MossRehab recently came together to address an important clinical issue—how to best care for patients with severe memory deficits due to acute traumatic brain injury (TBI). With the support of the Moss Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Dr. Amanda Rabinowitz and Dr. Mary Ferraro led a workgroup to develop an evidence-based protocol for treatment. The workgroup included supervisors from each of the major rehabilitation disciplines – Elizabeth Marcy (Physical Therapy), Stephanie Farm (Occupational Therapy), Deb Presutti (Speech Therapy), Nicole Bongart (Nursing), Lisa Pinder (Nursing), Dr. Eileen Fitzpatrick (Neuropsychology), as well as MRRI Visiting Scholar, Dr. Lyn Turkstra. Dr. Tessa Hart led an accompanying research study to evaluate the impact of the protocol. The results of this study were recently published in the journal Brain Injury.
Post-traumatic amnesia (PTA) is a state of confusion brought on by physical and chemical changes in the brain after a TBI. Patients may exhibit confusion, disorientation, retrograde amnesia (loss of memory for things that occurred prior to the event), inability to store new memories, and sometimes agitation and delusions. Frequently, patients with TBI are admitted to inpatient rehabilitation during PTA. The duration of PTA may last for a few minutes, or up to several weeks or months depending on the severity of the injury. Hence, many patients with TBI spend a significant portion of their inpatient rehabilitation stay in a state of PTA.
Can patients with memory impairments due to PTA benefit from rehabilitative treatment? Fortunately, the answer appears to be yes. During PTA, the implicit memory system—which enables learning of new skills and routines—is still functioning normally. As a result, rehabilitative approaches that focus on procedural learning are effective. However, difficulties with the explicit memorysystem interfere with learning and recall of fact-based and biographical information. These deficits pose a challenge for communication between patients and their families and care providers.
Patients are asked many questions in the course of treatment that rely on recall of information stored in the explicit memory system—questions about personal history, medical information, orientation, and recent events. Attempts to respond to these questions may cause anxiety and frustration, and furthermore, run the risk of patients providing inaccurate information that may impact the treatment planning process.
The workgroup developed a protocol for identifying patients in PTA, materials to guide communication and treatment, and a staff-training package. The training includes guidance on appropriate treatment and communication strategies, with emphasis on avoiding questions that require retrieval from explicit memory. Instead, clinicians are encouraged to use “here and now questions” and gather clinical information via observation, medical records, or a reliable family member.
Because patients’ rehabilitation experience extends beyond their contact with treating clinicians, separate training materials were developed that were specifically tailored towards staff from ancillary departments—such as dietary, housekeeping, and chaplaincy—who regularly interact with patients in PTA. Educational materials for family members were also provided to help patients’ loved ones understand their communication needs and behaviors. Staff were trained to use informational flyers to educate families on PTA and to guide them in using techniques for communicating with and supporting their loved one during rehabilitation.
Roll-out of the PTA protocol took place at the Drucker Brain Injury Center at MossRehab in 2019. In order to evaluate the impact of the protocol on staff behavior, we observed patients’ interactions with staff during the normal course of an inpatient day both before and after training. We coded the verbal exchanges with attention to inappropriate questions—those that rely on retrieval of information from long-term memory—that were posed to patients in PTA. These inappropriate questions included requests for information from recent or remote memory (e.g. “Do you have any allergies”), or “quiz” type questions where the questioner knows the answer they are looking for (e.g. “What’s my name?”).
Our findings were striking. We saw a significant decrease in the number of information request and quiz-type questions posed to patients, which reduced from over 16 such questions per hour for the typical patient, to fewer than 2. However, the number of appropriate “here and now” questions posed to patients by staff remained unchanged. We also obtained feedback from clinicians in an anonymous survey. The majority reported positive changes in their practice and improved team communication as a result of the training. Clinicians indicated that they were not only reducing the number of declarative memory questions they asked, but they were also providing patients with more information and reassurance.