Fulbright Fellow Dr. Kalenine Returns to MRRI to Study Word Learning After Stroke

A year ago, former MRRI Postdoctoral Fellow Solene Kalenine, PhD, received the exciting news that she had been selected as a laureate of the Fulbright-France program. This renowned program aims to foster dynamic and mutually beneficial collaborations between U.S. and French scholars, institutions, and societies by sponsoring mobility programs for students and researchers. Through receipt of this prestigious fellowship, Dr. Kalenine had an opportunity to come back to MRRI for a full year to conduct research with her former post-doctoral mentor Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, as well as Erica Middleton, PhD, two MRRI scientists who are experts on treatment of action and language deficits after stroke.

Overall, Dr. Kalenine’s research program aims to understand the relationships between knowledge about objects and action. Recently, she developed a line of research that focuses on support images for word learning. In this research, she aims to evaluate whether images that convey motor cues may help people to learn and produce novel or uncommon words. Dr. Kalenine obtained promising results in her previous studies in this area, which were conducted in children and adults with neurotypical cognitive function.

In neurotypical adults, object nouns learned with an image showing the appropriate gesture for the object’s use (for example, a hand holding a hammer) were learned better in a naming task than nouns learned without the gesture cue. Based on this, Dr. Kalenine hypothesized that this type of action-related or motor cue might  also be helpful for people who have language deficits after stroke (aphasia). Re-learning words with images displaying motor cues could facilitate word retrieval and help people who had a stroke name objects more easily.

Twenty participants with post-stroke aphasia are being recruited from the MRRI Research Registry this year, with assistance from Shauna Zodrow, a research assistant. Participants are invited to attend six sessions during which they learn and practice a series of uncommon and difficult-to-retrieve object nouns.

The research team designed specific learning and practice exercises that involve objects, definitions, pictures, and the addition of gesture cues for half of the trained nouns. Dr. Kalenine and her collaborators will then evaluate the impact of training on how easily participants can retrieve these uncommon words in different tasks and situations. In participants who have completed the study to date, preliminary data are very encouraging. Participants all showed better recognition and naming of the object nouns after training, and gesture cues seem to lead to even faster word retrieval.

Drs. Kalenine, Buxbaum, and Middleton are looking forward to completing data collection and examining the full data set later this year. “Leading the Motor Word Learning project at MRRI has been an amazing experience. It has given me the chance to appreciate how a better understanding of basic cognitive processes may support the rehabilitation of cognitive deficits after stroke. Conversely, closely observing patients’ abilities and difficulties aids in thinking about how cognitive functions may be computed and interrelated in the healthy brain,” reflected Dr. Kalenine. She continued, “The translational approach adopted by the researchers at MRRI, beyond their specific area of expertise, has always been inspiring to me. Additionally, people have been very welcoming, and returning to MRRI after many years as a researcher in France felt like going back to my second home.”