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New strides in research help stroke patients

Assistant Professor Prudence Plummer-D’Amato, who began at Northeastern in September, is developing a rehabilitation program to train people suffering from neurological disorders, especially stroke victims, whose ability to walk has become impaired. Her research hinges on the interaction of a simple task most take for granted: walking and talking.

Stroke affects approximately 800,000 people a year, and approximately 75 percent of victims experience impaired walking even after their rehabilitation. Previous research has shown that spontaneous speech has a significant effect on walking in people after stroke, explains Plummer-D’Amato, and this research aims to detangle the specific contributions of speech respiration and the cognitive demands of spontaneous speech on gait interference.”

Plummer-D’Amato’s research goes something like this. She first looks at the way in which older adults are able to walk and speak simultaneously, gauging physical attributes like gait, speed, and stride, as well as speech patterns like sentence complexity and phrase repetition. Speech patterns are then recorded during seated conversations.

The idea is to determine the degree of impairment in order to target a physical therapy program to help the patient regain cognitive and walking capacity, she said.

Plummer-D’Amato believes with intensive physical therapy, patients can overcome that impairment, and she is preparing a National Institutes of Health grant to prove it. Her research project will involve physical therapy students, who will help examine the ways patients allocate their attention to talking while walking, and how this dual task affects their stability and risk for fall.

“Physical therapy helps the pathways in the brain to adapt or repair, depending on the severity of the injury in the brain” she says. “With a lot of practice, new pathways are developed to help perform the movement.”

She notes that the ability of a patient to properly function in their community and environment is key to their emotional and physical recovery.

A native of Australia, Plummer-D’Amato first became interested in her studies while doing her undergraduate studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne. She went on to do two post-doctorate degrees: in neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and in physical therapy at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla.

At Northeastern, Plummer-D’Amato currently teaches research methods and neurological management. She plans to train her research team of physical therapists in her Robinson Hall laboratory, which boasts a walking track for patients to practice their strides under close supervision.

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