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The National Institutes of Health has awarded Katarina Haley and Adam Jacks, in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences, a $3 million, five-year R01 research project grant to study speech production disorders following a stroke. The project will help researchers and clinicians define diagnostic profiles to enhance patient care.

Katarina Haley, PhD, CCC-SLP
Katarina Haley, PhD, CCC-SLP

“Speech-language pathologists who work with stroke survivors need objective methods to diagnose apraxia of speech and similar neurologic speech disorders,” Haley said. “These disorders are complex, yet the diagnostic methods we use today are poorly defined and depend heavily on subjective impression. It is a problem that researchers and clinicians have been frustrated about for decades, and now our team has crafted a realistic solution.”

A stroke can damage different parts of the brain; Haley and Jacks plan to study the left hemisphere. Damage can include aphasia, apraxia of speech, and dysarthria.  All of these disorders can affect speech production.

Haley explained that preliminary data from the UNC Center for Aphasia and Related Disorders, where she and Jacks are co-directors, have shown impaired speech variation along many dimensions and formation of distinctive speech profiles. In addition to defining existing disorders, she expects the team will identify new profiles that are relevant to clinical management.

Adam Jacks, PhD, CCC-SLP
Adam Jacks, PhD, CCC-SLP

“Once we know how to define key speech profiles quantitatively, we can study them systematically and learn how common they are, how they recover, what causes them, and what type of treatment they respond to. With the methods we plan to develop, clinicians will be able to justify diagnostic judgments and document effects of recovery and treatment,” Haley said.

The research team plans to recruit 900 patients with left-hemisphere stroke from UNC Health and Atrium Health. They will also study 200 people who have not had a stroke as control subjects.

Haley said there are myriad implications to this research, including customized treatment recommendation and information counseling. She anticipates the project will be useful for apraxia of speech in realms beyond stroke, such as with progressive diseases.

“People who are adults have communicated all of their lives prior to having a stroke; they can regain a lot of those abilities to speak with loved ones and in their communities,” Haley said. “But the quality of the therapy can determine how much speech they regain. We believe the best outcomes require treatment methods that are tailored to the underlying problem.”

Haley said she is encouraged by what she and Jacks have accomplished so far.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” Haley said. “It truly feels like our research is helping move science forward, and that we’re contributing in meaningful ways to other scientists’ work to understand and lessen the consequences of left-hemisphere stroke.”

Katarina Haley and Adam Jacks, both PhD, CCC-SLP, are professors and associate professors within the division, respectively. The Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences.