SHRS researcher receives NIH grant to study communication deficits in stroke patients

August 21, 2003

PITTSBURGH, Aug. 20 - The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders has awarded University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences' (SHRS) researcher Connie A. Tompkins, Ph.D., a $1.2 million grant to study language comprehension deficits in adults who have experienced right hemisphere brain damage (RHD) as the result of stroke. By studying the novel concept of how the right half of the brain affects language comprehension investigators are developing new theories and opening up new avenues for research, evaluation and rehabilitation.

People recovering from right hemisphere stroke often have difficulty comprehending words and phrases that have more than one meaning, such as jokes, polite expressions, and other figures of speech. This problem can be quite socially handicapping. However, most research on language in stroke patients has focused on the left side of the brain, because traditionally it was thought that the left hemisphere of the brain controlled all language functions. Within the past 20 years, research led by Dr. Tompkins and colleagues has shown that the right half of the brain enables people to understand the nuances of language. This has led researchers and clinicians in communication science and disorders to question previous theories and rehabilitation practices.

"For years it was thought that patients who have experienced right hemisphere stroke lost knowledge of the different interpretations of some language forms, especially words or phrases that have more than one meaning. Our data indicate that this isn't the case. In fact, they access various interpretations for words like 'bat' or phrases like 'Can you open the door?' What many have lost is the ability to suppress the meaning that doesn't fit with the context of a conversation. It's not a matter of not knowing, it's a matter of not being able to determine what meaning is intended," said Dr. Tompkins, professor of communication science and disorders, SHRS. "This discovery has given us reason to rethink decades of theory and treatment. With this grant we continue to test predictions of several theories, to gain a better understanding of the nature of communication deficits caused by RHD. More accurate theories should ultimately lead to more appropriate clinical intervention for people with these problems."

In the study adults with RHD will be asked to complete comprehension tasks and their results will be compared to the results of adults who have not had strokes. The data will be evaluated to determine what type of comprehension deficit the RHD patients experience and to test Tompkins' theory against two alternative theories. One of these alternatives suggests that RHD patients are unable to maintain different meanings for words and phrases; the other that RHD patients aren't able to use certain types of reasoning or inferencing processes to determine an intended meaning. In addition, the study will use MRI scans to determine if the location of the lesion has an effect on the patient's communication deficit.

For more information or to enroll in the study, call 412-383-6624. The study is currently enrolling individuals who have RHD as the result of stroke, as well as older participants who have not had a stroke.
Jocelyn Uhl
Frank Raczkiewicz
PHONE: 412-647-3555
FAX: 412-624-3184

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

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