Maria Fransisca Alonso Sanchez, Western University

Maria Fransisca Alonso Sanchez, Western University

One of the factors that has inspired me to work in psychosis and schizophrenia research is the challenge to improve the functional impairment of persons with schizophrenia and the current therapeutic approaches available. As a speech and language pathologist (SLP) I have a particular interest in the functionality, quality of life, and social inclusion of people, and as a researcher, I know that we must put efforts into generating evidence-based therapeutic mechanisms that help us to address these issues.  

In this context, my work so far has focused on finding meaningful patterns in the speech of people with schizophrenia and how the words they use relate to each other. Specifically, we observed that people within their first episode of psychosis used more words that are synonyms or are very similar to each other throughout their discourse, i.e., they had more inefficient discourse. This is a fundamental feature at the level of communication, but we went further and wanted to understand how these patterns relate to other cognitive domains, in particular interference control. Interference control is a cognitive function that allows us to select relevant information from irrelevant information for a particular context. Indeed, we observed that aberrant word selection is correlated with interference control. We then conducted a 6-month follow-up in a section of our sample and observed that neither speech inefficiency nor negative symptoms improved with pharmacological treatment. Finally, with an emphasis on unraveling how these patterns are associated with certain brain areas of the language network, we performed an analysis of resting-state effective connectivity with functional MRI in people with first episode of schizophrenia. We observed that there are two areas of great interest that are modulated by ineffective speech, i.e., these areas could be involved in this phenomenon and therefore could be possible targets for stimulation or treatment. These topics have been a priority for me as they have potential use in the implementation of language intervention programs in combination with brain neuromodulation for people with schizophrenia. There is still a lot of work to be done to understand the relationship between language and the brain language network.  

I believe it will be a significant and rewarding challenge for future researchers from translational cognitive neuroscience to incorporate this new knowledge and improve quality of life for people experiencing schizophrenia. This new knowledge can also be utilized to generate evidence-based intervention programs that are effective and efficient. Finally, I would like to remark that as an SLP we have another challenge, which is to be part of the mental health team to implement these interventions. However, this is not automatic and we need more people who specialize in the area because working with people with aphasia or dementia is not the same as working with persons with schizophrenia. I firmly believe that if we work on evidence-based programs and specialization in mental health, SLPs can provide a great contribution to the intervention and treatment process for people with schizophrenia.  

The Early Career Award program is intended to sponsor individuals who have, through their research, teaching or clinical activities, demonstrated a professional and scientific interest in the field of schizophrenia research. You can find out more by clicking here.

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