Assistant Professor Pete receives $3 million grant to improve treatment of aphasia

The announcement of Bruce Willis’ aphasia diagnosis is raising awareness of a common condition few people are aware of. More than two million Americans live with aphasia.

“It’s a really common disorder with limited services,” says Will Evans, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) at the University of Pittsburgh. “Most people don’t receive treatment after the first year or so.”

Dr. Will Evans

For more than a decade, Evans has been studying language disorder and researching ways to help people with aphasia improve their communication abilities. Aphasia, usually caused by a stroke or other acquired brain injury, can have a negative impact on an individual’s quality of life, often leading to depression and feelings of isolation. A major frustration for people with aphasia is anomia, or difficulty finding words.

In February, Evans received a $2.98 million NIH R01 clinical trial grant for five years to improve treatment of aphasia. With the study titled “Integrating Complementary Learning Principles in Aphasia Rehabilitation Through Adaptive Modeling,” Evans and his team will develop and evaluate novel computer-based aphasia therapies to help improve the efficiency and long-term impact of language therapy.

One of the distinguishing features of aphasia is its versatility. “Strokes on two patients that appear nearly identical on brain scans can end with completely different language difficulties,” explains Evans. “So aphasia requires a careful medical approach, deciding the best way to meet the individual patient’s needs.” Previous research has dealt with this by looking at how individual patient characteristics (such as language ability or the nature of brain damage) affect treatment outcomes.

However, these studies usually apply to the same treatment given in the same way to all patients. “We take a different approach. Our adaptive computer-based therapies are designed to improve each patient’s learning efficiency by using their treatment performance over time to automatically adjust how long or how often words are practiced.”

In other words, current precision medicine approaches to aphasia focus on questions such as “Does a particular patient characteristic make a person a good candidate for treatment for a one-size-fits-all treatment?” Instead, Evans’ team asks, “Can we use adaptive learning algorithms to make computer-based treatments effective for as many patients as possible by adapting their own learning performance?”

His team includes SHRS Fellow and Professor Lauren Tierhurst, Department of Occupational Therapy. Peter Brusilovsky, Professor at the Faculty of Computers and Information. Jeff Starns, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology and Brain, University of Massachusetts Amherst; and Will Hola, MD, a speech-language pathologist, Veterans Health Foundation.

The investigators are excited about the study’s potential results and their real-world implications.

One of the clinical trials in this project uses free, open-source flashcard software (Anki) to provide treatment for aphasia. This means that if trial results are positive, patients and clinicians can immediately begin using existing free software as an evidence-based treatment approach.

Evans’ previous work using technology to support treatment already shows promise in helping aphasia sufferers. Currently, he is testing three prototypes with “Aphasia Games for Health”, which are therapy games designed to help teach and communicate with others with aphasia in a fun and friendly way. Due to the common barriers to transportation and mobility experienced by stroke survivors with aphasia, these card games are designed to be played in person or through video conferencing software such as Zoom.

One of them is an improvement game where players pretend to audition for a movie and have to remember certain words but can get help from other players if needed. When his team created the game, Evans didn’t know that a lead actor would have aphasia, but he wants the audience to know that resources are now available for people with aphasia.

“I have learned from my friends and former patients of the aphasia community that life goes on. When they find support, and when they figure out how to accept and respond to what has happened to them, there is a beautiful life to follow with people who support each other and struggle with isolation,” says Evans.

Resources for people with aphasia:

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