Dr. Nitin Tandon
Dr. Nitin Tandon

Neuroscientists have been awarded a $1.8 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to explore a leading-edge treatment for speech problems experienced by many people following a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or other neurological disorder.

The 5-year study is led by Nitin Tandon, M.D., a McGovern Medical School neurosurgeon specializing in epilepsy care at the Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute at the Texas Medical Center.

Scientists do not fully understand how the brain retrieves the words people use to describe concepts, objects, or emotions, which complicates efforts by doctors to correct speech problems tied to brain disorders, he said.

“The human vocabulary is large, yet we are able to select the most appropriate words at very high speeds and assemble them in a way that conveys meaning,” Tandon said. “How we do so is not well understood. We do know that speech production relies on a distributed network that is disrupted in many people who suffer neurological disorders.”

Tandon and his colleagues are conducting a series of experiments on word production involving people whose brain waves are being monitored through the use of intracranial electroencephalographic (icEEG) recordings.

Tandon, professor in the Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery, said, “Our work will provide unique information on the neurobiology of word production.”

The patients in the study have epilepsy and electrodes have been implanted in their brain to pinpoint where the seizures begin. When a seizure occurs, doctors are able to localize the onset to the part of the brain responsible for the seizure and remove it.

While their brain activity is being monitored, patients are shown pictures or written words and asked to describe what they see. “We’re using this information to build an interactive atlas of the region of the brain that produces and selects names,” Tandon said. “Through our research we hope to gain real insight into how humans choose the right individual words and string them together into a logical and understandable sequence.”

Depending on the findings, Tandon said that possible solutions could include wireless brain implants that help people communicate through computers. “Using the incomplete language network that remain, these prosthetics could reconstruct speech and allow people to communicate their basic needs and emotions,” he said.

The study runs through 2020 and researchers hope to conduct word identification tests with approximately 80 patients.

Tandon’s collaborators include Joshua Breier, Ph.D., of UTHealth;  Xaq Pitkow, Ph.D., of Rice University; Robert Knight, M.D., of the University of California, Berkeley;  and Greg Hickok, Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine.

Tandon is on the faculty of The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute On Deafness And Other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01DC014589. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.