A significant grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will help to fund advanced brain research at the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC focused on deeper understanding of how speech is controlled in the brain. The research team will study patients with Parkinson’s disease (PD) while they undergo deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery.
The $3.3 million grant awarded over a 3-year period, is among the third round of awards in the NIH’s BRAIN Initiative launched by President Obama in 2013 as a large-scale effort to understand the brain and apply the knowledge to treating a variety of brain disorders including Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism and traumatic brain injury, among others.
A multidisciplinary team of experts from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and Johns Hopkins University will be led by McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Mark Richardson, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, director of the Epilepsy and Movement Disorders Surgery Program at UPMC, and member of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. Dr. Richardson is an internationally recognized leader in the surgical treatment of movement disorders, including both awake and interventional-MRI DBS, and gene therapy.
Since DBS produces predictable improvements in most motor symptoms of PD, but does not result in consistent improvement in speech or even negatively impacts language function, Dr. Richardson’s team developed a novel method to record activity from different parts of the brain’s speech circuit.
Evidence from previous studies has suggested that the basal ganglia, a group of structures in the base of the brain, play an important role in the speech motor system. However, there is no neurophysiological model for how it actually modulates speech, which is a barrier to developing specific treatments to address deficits that can significantly reduce patients’ abilities to communicate.
“Our overall goals are to determine how motor and linguistic speech information is encoded in the brain, and to understand how this information can be used to treat speech disorders. Our team consists of experts in cognitive and computational neuroscience who will develop novel approaches to analyze this highly unique data,” said Dr. Richardson.
The study will aim to understand which neuronal activity in the subthalamic nucleus (STN)—a component of the basal ganglia—is responsible for different aspects of speech, including articulation, volume, pitch, and efficiency, along with identifying how the STN interacts with the cortex to modulate speech. To do this, researchers will record the brain activity of PD patients during DBS surgery as they are asked to perform a variety of speech tasks.
“There are very few effective cures for neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders,” said Walter J. Koroshetz, MD, director of NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “By pushing the boundaries of fundamental neuroscience research, NIH BRAIN Initiative scientists are providing the insights researchers will need to develop 21st century treatments.”