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Research improves understanding of speech disorder


17 December 2013

Award-winning research improves understanding of speech disorder

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Dr Caroline Wilshire (left) and Paula Speer.

A PhD candidate from Victoria University of Wellington has won an award for her research in the field of aphasia research and treatment.

Paula Speer from Germany was one of five people to receive the biannual Gesellschaft für Aphasieforschung und Behandlung (Society for Aphasia Research and Treatment) prize for outstanding work in the field by young researchers.

Ms Speer has been researching nonfluent aphasia, a language disorder that prevents people from organising words into sentences and speaking fluently after they have had a stroke. Her research has found that stroke survivors with the disorder need to choose common words early on in a sentence and avoid ones that are too similar in order to construct accurate sentences. Delays and confusion occurred when they tried to use similar—or semantically related—words in the same sentence, such as king and queen (two people) or bear and dog (two animals).

Ms Speer breaks from tradition by focusing on the word content of speech, rather than grammatical structure. Her research builds on the work of her supervisor Dr Carolyn Wilshire, Senior Lecturer in Victoria’s School of Psychology, which looked at single word production of people with nonfluent aphasia.

“Word content isn’t an area that has received a lot of attention, so in a sense I am going against the norm,” says Ms Speer.

“But it’s been very rewarding because I’ve gained a lot of clues into what’s an increasingly common language disorder.”

Paula designed a series of experiments to explore how people with nonfluent aphasia use words to construct spoken sentences. She also used brain scans of stroke survivors to identify the parts of the brain most strongly associated with the condition.

Dr Wilshire says Ms Speer’s research is a world first and reveals exciting new insights into how the disorder might be treated in the future.

“These findings help explain why people with the disorder have such difficulty producing longer utterances,” she says.

Ms Speer hopes her findings will help improve the way people with nonfluent aphasia are treated in the future and give speech language therapists and specialists new ideas about the best technology and treatments to use in rehabilitation.


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