USC professor earns $11 million grant to study stroke recovery

Survival from stroke has improved thanks to better technology and treatment. But researchers at the University of South Carolina want to reverse the long-term effects the disease has on some patients who have trouble communicating with others.

USC Professor Julius Fridriksson is taking on the challenge with the aid of an $11 million, five-year grant for stroke recovery research awarded by the National Institute of Health.

USC Professor Julius Fridriksson was awarded an $11 million grant to study aphasia and stroke recovery. (Photos by Kelly Petty)

USC Professor Julius Fridriksson was awarded an $11 million grant to study aphasia and stroke recovery. (Photos by Kelly Petty)

Fridriksson’s research study will focus on aphasia, a communication disorder that impairs a person’s ability to speak, write, read and understand language. It affects about one-third of people who are diagnosed with strokes.

“We know from previous research that if you get rehabilitation for aphasia, you do get better in the long run,” Fridriksson said. “We kind of mix up the medical model and the rehab model and we assume that they are the same and they’re not. People do need prolonged therapy to get better.”

Stroke patients who suffer from aphasia maintain their intellectual capacities long after prognosis, Fridriksson said, but they are unable to communicate with people. Left untreated, it can harm a person’s ability to retain a job and cause them to become socially isolated.

“If you can’t communicate, your life is over as it used to be,” he said. “Most of these people lose their friends, they don’t want to go to church anymore.”

Fridriksson and his fellow researchers have conducted smaller studies on aphasia, typically working with up to 40 patients a year. But the NIH grant will allow them to build a larger pool of participants to study.

“If you want to see what the big picture is, you really need to use what we now call ‘big data approach,’ ” said Fridriksson, who joined the USC Arnold School of Public Health in 2001. “This is what this grant will allow us to do — collect a large data set that will give us a much better idea of prognosis and better methods to rehabilitate.”

Fridriksson said his study on aphasia recovery would be the largest of its kind in the past 20 years. The NIH grant will allow for establishment of the Center for the Study of Aphasia Recovery. Hundreds of potential stroke patients will be solicited from the Midlands to take part in the study, he said.

The research will be centered around images of the brain using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner at USC’s McCausland Center for Brain Imaging. Blood flow and brain activity related to stroke can be seen in the scans.

Stroke patients also will be able to undergo various speech, writing and behavioral therapies at the university’s rehabilitation centers to discover the best course of treatment for their aphasia.

The NIH grant will focus on four areas:

  • Measure the effects of treatment on chronic patients to see who responds well or poorly to therapy.
  • Assess those who have just had a stroke and use aphasia therapy and electrical brain stimulation to find the best ways to enhance patient outcomes in the days and weeks immediately following a stroke.
  • Study the brain and nervous system, as well as their effects on a person’s cognition and behavior, to build a statistical model of who is most likely to recover from aphasia and who is not.
  • Compare the influence of the brain and the nervous system on speech and language in normal people versus those recovering from stroke.

Undergraduate and graduate students from USC’s public health, psychology and exercise science departments will be able to participate in the study, Fridriksson said. USC also will partner with Johns Hopkins University, the University of California-Irvine and the Medical University of South Carolina.

Palmetto Health Hospital in Columbia shares use of USC’s MRI technology and will play an integral role in the research through a relationship with Dr. Souvik Sen, professor and chairman of the Department of Neurology at USC’s medical school and medical director for the Palmetto Health Stroke Center.

“Palmetto Health is crucial because they get so many stroke patients,” Fridriksson said. “Getting access to those people and getting the information to them so they know once they leave the hospital, here is something that can help them.”

South Carolina lies in the heart of the “Stroke Belt,” a name given to a group of states in the Southeast that are known for high instances of stroke and other cardiovascular diseases. Other states include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

In 2014, South Carolina had the seventh-highest state ranking in the nation in terms of death rate from stroke. That year, stroke caused more than 14,500 hospitalizations and more than 2,300 deaths in the state, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Fridriksson said poor diets, smoking and other bad habits could be some of the causes of the increasing number of younger stroke patients he sees, identifying most of those as being in their 30s and 40s.

“Stroke rate has actually gone down a little bit amongst the older population,” he said, “but we have a very distinct moniker in South Carolina that half of all stroke patients here are under 60.”

Fridriksson’s study on stroke and aphasia will begin April 1. Those interested in participating in the study can find more information at the USC Arnold School of Public Health’s website or by calling 803-777-2693.

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