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Exploring language recovery for stroke patients

Neurologist Argye Hillis studies electrical stimulation to improve synaptic plasticity
Posted October 9, 2013

Argye Hillis - Exploring language recovery for stroke patients

People can continue to recover from a stoke for the rest of their lives. This is one observation by Argye Hillis, MD, Med ’95, director of the Johns Hopkins Cerebrovascular Division, whose first contact with neurological diseases that affect speech coincided with the time in her life when she was learning to speak herself. Her grandmother who suffered from such a disorder moved into her household when Hillis was about two years old. And this exposure motivated Hillis to first become a speech pathologist and later a stroke neurologist, who specializes in these speech limitations known as aphasia. “I really love working with the patients and helping them recover from their stroke.  It’s very rewarding,” says Hillis, who adds that 25% of all stroke patients can reclaim independent lives due to synaptic plasticity, where the undamaged parts of the brain take over the tasks from the damaged parts.
With support from grateful patients, Hillis is currently researching whether transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) – a very low-current, non-painful stimulation – will help facilitate synaptic plasticity and reorganization. This study will provide preliminary data which will be used to apply for NIH funding for a larger study. Hillis is also co-investigator on another tDCS-aphasia study led by research associate Kyrana Tsapkini, PhD, who received a grant from the Johns Hopkins Science of Learning Institute.
Performing simple language tasks uses several different parts of the brain, and regaining language function depends on synaptic plasticity, according to Hillis. “How well you are able to recover may also depend on the number of years of education and how much you used reading and writing prior to your stroke,” Hillis says, adding motivation plays a huge role in this recovery, too.