Learning with Aphasia


Translating Research into Recovery


For those with aphasia — a disorder challenging language production and processing — the ability to communicate could be right at their fingertips. Leora Cherney, PhD, is not going to wait for research findings to be published before helping these patients feel more connected.

Most aphasia research and treatments target the single-word level (e.g., “pizza”). At Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, clinicians work with patients at the sentence level to connect speech naturally (“I want a slice of pizza.”), focusing on intonation, melody and rhythm — as Dr. Cherney puts it, “How people actually talk.”

The work expands from there. A speech-language pathologist by training, Dr. Cherney doesn’t just want to help people speak; she wants to help them communicate.

“Even though we all use texting as a primary communication channel, it is hugely overlooked in aphasia research and treatment,” she said. “People with aphasia have significant trouble communicating and connecting with others through technology.”

To address this gap, Dr. Cherney developed a research study to assess the efficacy of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s novel treatment that trains people with aphasia to use texting. The intervention is delivered via computer using state-of-the-art virtual therapist technology.

Research results were exciting, and Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s model allowed patients to benefit immediately from what scientists were learning.

“The traditional scientific model includes various sequential steps and many, many years before research is brought to patients, if ever,” Dr. Cherney said. “At Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, because we perform our research in-house and have a structure to disseminate findings quickly, we can bypass typical delays. We don’t need to wait for a paper to be published or presented at a conference. If we find that an approach is leading to better patient recoveries, we collaborate with our clinical staff to translate it into practice immediately.”

Over her highly productive career, Dr. Cherney has amassed innumerable accolades. However, for her, the best reward is when patients share heartfelt gratitude. Because of her latest research, many now have a new way to say thanks.

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