Haya Akkad, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

Improving speech recovery after stroke (PhD studentship)

Haya Akkad was awarded a Brain Research UK PhD studentship in 2019 to enable her to pursue research aimed at improving recovery in patients left with speech and language impairments after stroke.

 

Having graduated from UCL with an MSc in Clinical Neuroscience in 2015, Haya has subsequently worked as a postgraduate researcher in the Nuffield Centre of Clinical Neuroscience, Oxford, and the Department of Clinical and Movement Neuroscience at UCL Institute of Neurology.

Her academic and research experience have inspired Haya to pursue a PhD in this area of research, with the ultimate aim of developing novel therapies for the treatment of neurological disorders. 

About aphasia

Being able to communicate using speech is something most of us take for granted. Speaking and finding the right words is a skill used every day and losing this skill can be devastating.

Aphasia - speech and language impairment – is the second most common major impairment following stroke, with an estimated 350,000 people in the UK affected. It is a severely disabling disorder - patients with impaired speech are more likely to withdraw socially and suffer from depression. Everyday communication becomes a source of profound frustration.

Despite the prevalence of aphasia, few patients receive sufficient speech and language therapy through the NHS. On average, patients receive 8 to 12 hours in total, yet the recommended dose to bring about significant change is 100 hours. As a result, many patients simply do not recover good function.

There is a pressing need to develop economically feasible ways to boost the effects of therapy.

Modulating speech recovery after stroke

Non-invasive electrical brain stimulation is becoming widely used as a tool to promote recovery of the brain after injury.

In her PhD project, Haya will build on work carried out during her time working as a postgraduate researcher with Professors Charlotte Stagg in Oxford and Sven Bestmann at UCL, during which she developed a new protocol for the use of a type of brain stimulation called tACS. This is a non-invasive, safe and painless method of brain stimulation that interacts with brainwaves at a particular type of frequency. Haya achieved striking results, showing how tACS can boost learning when paired with behavioural training. 

Working with patients from the new intensive aphasia service at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (NHNN) in London, Haya will now pair the brain stimulation protocol with language training, with the aim of boosting speech recovery in patients suffering from chronic aphasia following stroke.

She will assess whether the tACS protocol can improve immediate speech performance and whether it can enhance the long-term benefits of speech training. She also wants to find out if it’s possible to predict which patients will do well in response to speech therapy.

Haya will be jointly supervised by Professor Jenny Crinion and Professor Sven Bestmann who between them have a wealth of experience in neurorehabilitation, speech and language therapy, brain stimulation and neuro-imaging.

Professor Crinion heads the aphasia clinical service at NHNN and her team includes a number of speech and language therapists who will support Haya in administering the behavioural tests and training.

This is a very impressive candidate, who will have access to amazing collaborators and together I think they could do something exciting.” External reviewer 

Impact

It is hoped that this type of brain stimulation will provide a low-cost, portable neuro-rehabilitation tool that can be used alongside training to reliably boost patients’ recovery after stroke. Boosting speech function recovery would have a great impact on patient well-being, increasing independence, ability to return to work and overall quality of life.

This is a proof-of-concept study, linked with an NHS clinical service. If successful, it could lead to a wider scale clinical trial on the use of brain stimulation as an adjunct to neuro-rehabilitation to boost recovery in chronic stroke patients.

Equally important, through this PhD studentship, we are nurturing the development of a promising young researcher who we hope will go on to develop a long and illustrious career in this important field.

Given the enormous impact of aphasia on the patient's life as well as society as a whole, and the current lack of available therapeutic approaches that are both effective and efficient, the proposed research is a particularly important contribution to translate pioneering neuroscientific research into the clinic.” External reviewer

Related research projects

Acquired brain and spinal cord injury (including stroke) is one of our current priority research themes, reflecting the large unmet need in this area. Our aim is to fund research to advance understanding of how to promote repair of the brain and spinal cord following injury.

In addition to Haya's PhD project, we are funding the following other projects under this theme: