Neurolinguistics Summer Seminar Crosses Disciplines
November 1, 2010
By: Jordan Pye
Doctoral students from a wide array of disciplines had an uncommon opportunity last summer to research the complex topic of neurolinguistics in an advanced seminar with CSD professor Dr. Cynthia O’Donoghue.
Although doctoral courses are usually specific to a concentration, the interdisciplinary nature of the CSD 858 Advanced Seminar in Neurolinguistics makes it applicable to many fields of study. However, the course has not been offered regularly since O’Donoghue first taught it in 2005, making the summer offering an exclusive opportunity.
O’Donoghue explained that the study of neurolinguistics allows speech pathologists and other related professionals to analyze how different elements of brain function and structure affect language and communication. Its study draws theories and methods from fields including cognitive science, neurobiology, computer science, psychology, communication disorders and others.
“Throughout this summer doctoral seminar, our topics of study have included the neurological underpinning of normal language, language disorders following acquired brain injury [such as] aphasia, cognitive and behavioral influences upon language functions, and even the applications to learning,” O’Donoghue said.
O’Donoghue said that since completing her doctoral degree she has expanded her knowledge of the subject through collaborative research and conference presentations. Some of her personal research tied to neurolinguistics included an evaluation of the relationship between cognitive-linguistic performance and Parkinson’s disease. Another studied stroke patients with paraphasias, who have difficulty choosing the right words or ordering their sentences correctly when they speak.
The seminar itself had a research focus and all students were required to complete a research project tailored to their concentration of study. CSD doctoral student Victoria Harding learned to identify specific neurologic disease processes by how they would present in a clinical visit, and for her research project she produced a manual to help speech-language pathologists select the most appropriate assessment tools when they work with individuals who have sustained traumatic brain injuries. Her manual provides detailed, peer-reviewed instructions for implementing a standardized assessment of patients with TBI, and provides the necessary background information for the speech-language pathologist to understand the test results in context. One step involves explaining to the subject what the test results mean for their recovery process.
“Internet blogs are full of parents and individuals who are angry with tests’ results and in each case reviewed, it was clear that the blogger did not understand the meaning of the test, including the what, why and the how,” Harding explained. “To ensure that individuals are truly vested in their therapy, it is essential that they understand what a test is measuring, why it is tested in this way and how the skill may be important in daily functioning.”
Fellow participant Elizabeth Bowman had similar interests as a certified brain injury specialist with Crossroads to Brain Injury Recovery, a community-based nonprofit that serves people with acquired brain injuries. She took the seminar for professional development while coordinating a research project on acquired brain injury and behavioral health issues and crisis intervention. Bowman said she was especially interested in how brain functioning and linguistic theory affect a person’s identity.
“Many people who suffer brain injuries often struggle with reconstructing their identity after the injury,” Bowman said. “Basic knowledge of linguistic theory such as metaphor and cognitive processes can assist therapists, case managers and other professionals in helping clients reconcile their sense of identity.”
Rebecca Lahaie, a third-year graduate student in the Combined-Integrated Clinical and School Psychology doctoral program, also took the course because of her interest in rehabilitation neuropsychology. Her research project studied the effects of pediatric TBI on language processes.
“In rehab, we work with individuals who have sustained some kind of neurotrauma [such as a stroke] that can impact their function in myriad ways,” Lahaie said. “It is important for psychologists to have a solid understanding of the ways in which such insults to the brain influence individuals at a basic neurologic level, in order to effectively diagnose and intervene.” Lahaie said the course introduced her to a variety of topics, but also to different perspectives from fields relevant to hers.
“What I really appreciated most was learning from my peers and developing a better understanding of their roles as professionals,” Lahaie said. She added that although neurolinguistics is too large a subject to address with one seminar, “this course and the instructor provided an excellent foundation of knowledge, and enough flexibility to explore areas of specific interest in depth.”
On the other hand, JMU’s Communications Center coordinator Michelle Moreau took the course as a graduate psychology assessment and measurement student because it intersected with her humanities background. The seminar exposed her to communication science subjects like brain injury and language production because, Moreau learned, “much of what we know about how the brain processes language comes from studying people who have lost that ability.”
Moreau’s research project looked at multimedia learning theory and how an audience processes oral text, visual text and visual media in a PowerPoint or other presentation. Although she does not work with brain injuries, Moreau said she felt a “great deal of mutual respect” among the course’s participants and hoped she contributed something to the learning process as well.
Although O’Donoghue is unsure when the seminar will be offered again, she agrees that the course is unique because it responds to the interests of different professional fields.
“We have participants from Assessment and Measurement, Psychology Practice, CSD, and a community representative who serves as the program coordinator for a regional brain injury support agency,” O’Donoghue said. “This diversity of professional make up is critical to training our future healthcare researchers and leaders.”