Northwestern program uses speech therapy to combat dementia

Ryan Wangman, Reporter

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A new speech therapy program aimed at helping people with dementia regain control of their verbal skills significantly improved patients’ language abilities, according to a Northwestern study.

The program, called “The Communication Bridge,” was designed by a team including Feinberg Prof. Emily Rogalski, lead author of the study and instructor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center. It targets a specific type of dementia — primary progressive aphasia — that results in individuals’ communication skills deteriorating first.

“We’ve probably all experienced that tip of the tongue phenomenon where we can’t remember someone’s name, or we can’t remember that word that we’re trying to retrieve,” Rogalski said. “These individuals experience that kind of problem all the time.”

The program used the internet to deliver care and reach a more widespread patient base, Rogalski said. It consisted of eight 1-hour videoconference treatment sessions with a speech-language pathologist, followed by two post-enrollment evaluations to determine the duration of therapy benefit.

The study was designed to help participants absorb words relevant to their daily lives, said Becky Khayum, a speech-language pathologist and consultant on the study.

Diane Pugh, a participant in the study, practiced retrieving the names of flowers and plants in her garden and said she is more confident as a result of the program.

“The thing that has been the most helpful is to be able to (identify) photographs of different things,” Pugh said. “Like, ‘What was that plant in my garden?’ or ‘What was I using in the kitchen?’ or ‘What was my cousin’s name?’”

Rogalski said in the past it was hard for many patients to find speech-language pathologists who are able to treat degenerative diseases. There has also been a misconception that speech-language therapy is not helpful for individuals with dementia, she said.

Khayum said there is still a stigma in society for people diagnosed with dementia. A diagnosis can lead individuals to lose confidence and become hyper-aware of their inability to pronounce a particular word, she said.

Post-study statistical tests revealed significant improvement in study participants’ confidence in their ability to communicate.

“People found that it really was impacting their daily lives,” Khayum said. “They felt like, ‘Okay, now we’re in a position of control. We’re not just sitting back and letting this disease take its course,’” she said.

Going forward, Rogalski said she would love to see the program implemented more widely, and she is currently planning to submit a grant to perform a proper clinical trial to demonstrate the program’s effectiveness.

“The long-term goal is not to keep it in-house but actually to make it useful and to share it with others,” she said.

Twitter: @ryanwangman