“Imagine you’ve been stranded on a desert island for 50 years with only a robot. You can teach the robot 100 words in order to converse with you, but only 100, and the robot can never be reprogrammed. Which words will you teach it?”
It might seem like a strange thought exercise, but that’s what Jamie Reilly, assistant professor of communications sciences and disorders at Temple University’s College of Public Health, has been asking himself for the past 5 years, and it is a question that has directly informed his treatment research among patients with progressive language and memory disorders.
Reilly’s research is in language therapy for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD). He and his collaborators received a $2.5 million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study a unique language rehabilitation technique.
The grant stems from a five year pilot program designed to test the effectiveness of teaching patients 100 words and preventing the loss of these words as dementia severity worsens.
“We saw promising results in the pilot,” said Reilly. “This grant represents an incredible opportunity to further expand the treatment and examine the neurological correlates of its effectiveness.”
According to Reilly, the study hopes to move beyond the rote memorization of the 100 words and instead seeks to make genuine, lasting connections in the patients’ brains – effectively compensating for some of the more debilitating language symptoms incurred in Alzheimer’s Disease and FTD.
“The focus is on words that are highly familiar and concrete,” said Reilly. “Working with patients and caregivers, we tailor a small specialized vocabulary and then train those words with the goal of preventing their loss. For example, we train on the name of a patient’s spouse by asking the patient to generate a series of specific memories and perceptual attributes about that person. The thought is that repeated training on a rich array of features will instill richness that makes each word more resilient to forgetting”
Reilly and his team are also studying how these words connect with language on a neural and behavioral level as well. Collaborators on the study include: Murray Grossman, M.D., Ed.D. (University of Pennsylvania), Jonathan Peelle, Ph.D. (Washington University), Lisa Edmonds, Ph.D. (Columbia University), and Tania Giovannetti (Temple University).
For more information on Dr. Jamie Reilly and his lab visit his official site: Memory, Concepts, Cognition Laboratory. (www.reilly-coglab.com)