Saying the right words

Stroke survivors with nonfluent aphasia need to choose common words and steer clear of ones that are too similar, new research suggests.

Dr Carolyn Wilshire and PhD student Paula Speer.
Dr Carolyn Wilshire and PhD student Paula Speer.

Nonfluent aphasia is a language disorder that prevents people from organising words into sentences and speaking fluently after they have had a stroke.

Paula Speer, a PhD student from Germany, has found that stroke survivors with the disorder are more likely to be able to construct accurate sentences if they use common words early on in a sentence. However, delays and confusion occurred when they tried to use similar—or semantically related—words in the same sentence, such as kingand queen (two people) or bear and dog (two animals).

Paula has broken 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 the 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 Paula.

“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.

Carolyn says Paula’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,” says Carolyn.

Paula 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.