A Longwood University professor’s research could hold the key to better treatment for victims of traumatic brain injuries like soldiers and football players.

Dr. Ann Cralidis, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, says her study of verbal fluency in traumatic brain injury (TBI) victims provides clues about how damaged brains perform executive functions—necessary cognitive processes people use to go about their daily activities. These processes include planning, paying attention, problem-solving and the ability to switch between tasks.

Brains that are damaged have a much harder time organizing thoughts and accomplishing tasks that most people find routine, like going to the bank or shopping for groceries. Additionally, treatment can be frustrating because there aren’t many available options, said Cralidis.

"When people go into a grocery store, they often have a list," she said. "Even if they don’t, they have some concept of where things are in the store, and how it’s laid out so they don’t take two hours wandering up and down each aisle looking for ten items. This type of organization and planning is also used in verbal fluency."

Verbal fluency is the ability of a person to produce words and sounds. Cralidis has found that TBI victims score significantly lower on verbal fluency tests than their uninjured peers, and this dropoff has been linked with TBI victims’ ability to perform routine daily tasks. Cralidis thinks treating verbal fluency will help TBI victims develop strategies that will improve their daily lives.

Testing verbal fluency is as simple as asking a person to rattle off words in a category, like "animals" or words beginning with a certain letter. From these answers, Cralidis is able to tease out differences that could lead to better treatment for TBI victims.

"When people begin to make a list of words, they group them according to things like sound or category. It’s how the brain organizes its thoughts," she said. "Likewise, when people go into the kitchen to make a meal, they organize their actions based on where the ingredients are located, estimated cooking times, and how long it will take to prepare the food for cooking. TBI victims have a hard time doing all of these things."

Cralidis wants to gather data on strategies uninjured people use to recall words, and then formulate treatments that will teach those strategies to TBI victims.

"If they can learn to organize their thoughts to get better at coming up with a list of words, they should be able to apply those same skills to routine activities," she said.

Cralidis and Dr. Shannon Salley, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, plan to interview hundreds of non-brain injured people to codify verbal fluency strategies. That work, coupled with the data Cralidis has already gathered, will provide the basis for more effective treatment of TBI victims.
[Brain/skull x-ray image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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