New research and tools for speech pathology

22 August 2021

Speech Pathology Week 2021: New research and tools for speech pathology

Part of MSWA’s $10m commitment to research in 2021

Communication is a fundamental human right. However, for some people, the prospect of losing their ability to communicate is a reality.

Most people have not heard the term ‘aphasia’ before, and yet it is seen in one third of people after a stroke and affects an estimated 156,000 stroke survivors in Australia. Aphasia is a communication disorder, which can occur suddenly following a stroke, head injury or gradually from a progressive neurological condition. The damage caused results in a breakdown in understanding language, and in speaking, reading and/or writing. This can have a devastating impact on the individual and their work, social life, and their family.

The nature of the brain is very complex - but the way in which language and thinking combine to enable communication to occur makes the picture even more complex. Finding ways to help people learn to communicate again is a major challenge faced by speech pathologists. While language therapies do help people learn skills to communicate again, the biggest challenge of all is ensuring the outcomes are meaningful, and that improvements positively impact everyday speaking and make a difference in their daily lives once people are away from the clinical setting.

NARNIA, or a Novel Approach to Real-life communication: Narrative Intervention in Aphasia, is a novel approach that has been developed by speech pathology researchers at Curtin University and is used by Speech Therapists. Led by Associate Professor Anne Whitworth, the development of the new NARNIA Communication App is one of the newly funded projects from our record-breaking $10 million research contribution in 2021.

The project teaches people with aphasia to combine the skills needed to talk and interact again in everyday situations. It takes a multi-level approach, combining what we know about finding words again, putting words into sentences and then organising language into larger communication structures to enable people to tell stories, give their opinions, or recount what happened on the weekend.

“It is conceptually different to other approaches to aphasia treatment,” says Professor Whitworth, “A characteristic that we believe is critical to its early success with people after stroke, following head injury, and with certain progressive language disorders seen in dementia.”

Drawing on theories of how we tell stories, and expanding to everyday speaking situations, Professor Whitworth and the team have been developing NARNIA for 10 years. To date, the promising outcomes have resulted in the approach being used internationally. These researchers are eager to evaluate it further, understand why it is effective, and identify who it best works for.

Initially, NARNIA was only delivered face-to-face by a speech pathologist. However, with global events shaping the way services are delivered and telehealth becoming the new normal, the need for NARNIA to be delivered in combination with a ‘virtual speech pathologist’ become clear.

Professor Whitworth has been working closely with MSWA Speech Pathology and Dietetics Manager Pamela Windram and our team of Speech Pathologists. This collaboration started around two years ago when Pamela asked for training in NARNIA for her team. NARNIA was embraced and delivered in face-to-face sessions with Clients at MSWA.

With the developments in technology, recent discussions between Pamela and Professor Whitworth moved to the potential for NARNIA to be delivered using a digital platform, and the concept of a ‘NARNIA Communication App’ emerged. MSWA funding will allow the development of this App and to test its application within MSWA and the wider community. Creating the App allows individuals to use their tablet or phone enabling intervention and therapy to occur anywhere.

According to Professor Whitworth, “The NARNIA Communication App will enable this unique and novel approach to be delivered to people living remotely or who are unable to attend a therapy site. It will increase the amount of therapy by increasing practice opportunities at home. It will enable family members and carers to be more involved in therapy.”

The NARNIA Communication App aims to produce more positive outcomes from therapy in terms of improved communication skills, family interaction, social opportunities, and quality of life. For this to happen, Professor Whitworth and the team of allied health researchers are joining forces with computer engineers and software scientists at Curtin University to first develop the App, and then trial it. This will enable the team to then evaluate whether it is appropriate and beneficial to those who need it, and explore whether it is as effective as face-to-face delivery.

This research shows the power of collaboration, when researchers, practitioners, and the people they are trying to help, work together to make real and lasting solutions. MSWA and Professor Whitworth have a short but rich history, and a bright future ahead to make sure everyone can have their say.

To learn about how Speech Pathology at MSWA supports people living with neurological conditions, visit our Speech Pathology section.