Pitt, UPMC Get $3.3 Million NIH Grant to Study How Brain Controls Speech

Issue Date: 
October 21, 2016

A $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will help fund advanced brain research at the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC.

The research team will look specifically at how the human brain controls speech and will study patients with Parkinson’s disease while they undergo deep brain stimulation surgery. 

The grant, awarded over a three-year period, is part of the third round of awards in the NIH’s BRAIN Initiative, which was launched by President Obama in 2013. The large-scale effort is aimed at helping researchers better understand the brain so they can apply the knowledge to treating a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, and traumatic brain injury, among others. 

R. Mark RichardsonR. Mark Richardson, an assistant professor of neurological surgery at Pitt’s School of Medicine, will lead the multidisciplinary team of experts from Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University, and Johns Hopkins University, who are working on the BRAIN Initiative grant. Richardson is also a member of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute and director of UPMC’s Adult Epilepsy and Movement Disorders Surgery Program. He is an internationally recognized leader in the surgical treatment of movement disorders, including both awake and interventional-MRI, deep brain stimulation, and gene therapy.

The stimulation produces predictable improvements in most motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but it does not result in consistent improvement in speech—and can even negatively impact language function. 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, plays an important role in the speech motor system. But there is no neurophysiological model showing how that part of the brain actually modulates speech. This presents a barrier to developing specific treatments for 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,” Richardson said.

The study will aim to understand which neuronal activity in the subthalamic nucleus—a component of the basal ganglia—is responsible for different aspects of speech, including articulation, volume, pitch, and efficiency. Researchers will also work on identifying how the subthalamic nucleus interacts with the brain’s cortex to modulate speech. To do this, researchers will record the brain activity of patients with Parkinson’s during deep brain stimulation surgery as the patients are asked to perform a variety of speech tasks.

“There are very few effective cures for neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders,” said Walter J. Koroshetz, director of the 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.”