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UCF Lands First-of-Its-Kind NIH Grant to Study Brain Disorder Among Chinese

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By Zenaida Gonzalez Kotola

A new University of Central Florida study could help tens of thousands of Chinese-Americans who have difficulty speaking after they suffer from strokes or other illnesses.

Assistant Professor Anthony Kong of Communication Sciences & Disorders has been awarded a first-of-its-kind $727,000 National Institutes of Health grant to research aphasia among Chinese speakers.

Aphasia is a condition in which people have difficulty understanding and speaking, usually after a stroke or head trauma. The trauma damages the left side of the brain, which is largely responsible for language comprehension and production. A tumor, brain infection or dementia can also cause the condition.  

About 1 million people in the United States have aphasia. Up to 38 percent of people who suffer a stroke develop it.  

"Aphasia can have devastating effects on daily communication and conversational skills that can severely hamper qualify of life," Kong said. "The overarching goal of this study is to improve assessment methods and provide some treatment guidelines for Chinese speakers with aphasia worldwide."  

Several studies have looked at how the brain processes the English language and how aphasia impacts language ability among English speakers. But no large-scale, comprehensive studies have been conducted among any Asian language speakers.

Contrary to popular belief, people do not acquire and process all languages the same. Existing research shows the brain's processing pattern for acquiring Chinese languages is quite different from Latin-based languages, which makes it essential to have the kind of information this study will produce available for assessment and treatment, Kong said.

There are very distinct ways that aphasia manifests itself among Cantonese speakers compared to English speakers, Kong said. He saw it first-hand while earning his doctorate and working in a Singapore hospital that saw hundreds of patients with aphasia who spoke English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay and Hindi, among other languages. 

Much of Kong's work will be conducted in his native Hong Kong because the community has a homogenous Cantonese-speaking population. Data and recommendations from the study, however, will have implications for all Chinese speakers with aphasia around the world. The information also will help further research about conditions across different languages.

Beginning in June, Kong and his team will interview and conduct extensive videotaped observations of more than 360 native Cantonese speakers with and without the condition. He will then create a database of information, which will include the distinctive linguistic symptoms of Chinese aphasia, the rhythm, stress and intonation of Chinese aphasic speech, and non-verbal behaviors of Chinese speakers with aphasia as a result of stroke. He will also document the same three categories in non-aphasiac subjects to create a baseline for comparison.

The information his team will collect is not available anywhere at this time and is essential in developing proper diagnosis and treatment of the condition among Chinese speakers. There are only a few existing tools to assess the condition among Cantonese speakers, one of which Kong developed when he was a graduate student. In comparison, more than 200 assessment tools exist for English speakers.

Kong's team includes Dr. Sam Po Law of the University of Hong Kong, Dr. Alice Su Ying Lee of University College Cork in the Republic of Ireland and several students at the University of Hong Kong. Several hospitals and service agencies also are helping with the study. Pilot programs conducted the past two summers were funded by grants from UCF's College of Health and Public Affairs.

Kong joined the UCF faculty in the fall of 2007. He is originally from Hong Kong. He completed his Bachelor of Science in Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. He stayed at the University of Hong Kong to earn his doctorate in the areas of aphasiology and adult neurogenic communication disorders. Prior to moving to the United States, he worked as the department head of the Speech Therapy Unit at the Hong Kong Society for the Deaf and served as the vice chairperson for the Hong Kong Association of Speech Therapists.

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