UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Chaleece Sandberg, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, received the 2014 New Century Scholars Research Grant from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation to further her research in language therapy for people who have suffered brain injuries.
Sandberg, who joined Penn State in August after completing her dissertation at Boston University, intends to use the $10,000 grant to compare healthy adults' brain activity to that of persons with aphasia.
Aphasia is the result of a brain injury that impacts a person's language skills, both verbal and written, similar to the damage former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords suffered due to a gunshot wound. Afterward, Giffords had to relearn how to speak with the assistance of speech pathologists.
Sandberg's research goal is to create a baseline of brain activity using typical adult brains and then compare that baseline to changes in brain activity in persons with aphasia who underwent a 10-week treatment program to improve their language skills. She suspects that the healthy volunteers will show little change in their brains over 10 weeks, and hopes the contrast will better show how the treatment promotes brain changes in persons with aphasia.
"By comparing brain changes that occur in patients after treatment to brain changes that normally occur over time, we are better able to pinpoint the changes that are important for language rehabilitation, giving us a sort of biomarker for successful treatment," Sandberg said. "Our end goal is to use this information to develop more effective and more efficient language therapy."
The research includes conducting an MRI scan while a person is completing a language task and when the brain is at rest, which allows Sandberg to see which parts of the brain light up under both conditions. After treatment of persons with aphasia, she saw increased activation in regions that typically process language.
"This helps us locate regions that are involved in what we call semantic processing, or processing the meanings of words," Sandberg said.
While studying healthy adults, Sandberg will use graph theory -- a mathematical method used to characterize complex systems such as social networks and molecular interactions.
"The brain is a complex network, so graph theory is very well suited to study the brain," Sandberg said. "It's very helpful in characterizing disordered versus typical brain activity. You can look at how important each region is within the network by way of how many connections are going in and out, or how regions cluster together to complete a task. It really is helpful in looking at the dynamics of language recovery in the brain."
The first recipient of the New Century Scholars Research Grant in 2003, was Swathi Kiran, who was Sandberg's mentor at Boston University. In 2006, Krista Wilkinson, communication sciences and disorders professor at Penn State, received the grant.
"It's such an honor to receive this grant because my mentor was the first recipient and so many researchers who I respect and who have been really successful in their lines of research have received this award," Sandberg said.