Researchers Win Grant to Fund Study of Multiple Sclerosis

Dr. John Hart

Dr. John Hart

Two researchers in the University’s Center for BrainHealth have been awarded a grant to study a common complaint among many multiple sclerosis sufferers — difficulty understanding spoken language.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society has awarded Dr. John Hart, the Center for BrainHealth’s medical science director and Jane and Bud Smith Distinguished Chair in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and Dr. Gail Tillman, research scientist and electroencephalography lab director at the center, more than $690,000 for a three-year study to investigate neural markers related to the frequent problem.

“Understanding language is very complex,” Hart said. “In addition to good hearing, it requires remembering what was said earlier in a conversation and even what was said earlier in each sentence. It requires being able to pay attention and knowing what words mean.

"Because being unable to follow conversations can have such a substantial and negative impact on social and work functioning at many levels, understanding this deficit is vitally important to the quality of life of those diagnosed with MS.”

Dr. Gail Tilman

Dr. Gail Tillman

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system that affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide. Although not usually fatal, the disease can be debilitating since it involves the body’s immune system attacking its own central nervous system including the brain, optic nerves and spinal cord. Almost half of all people diagnosed will develop problems with cognitive functions, such as following conversations.

As part of the study, Hart and Tillman will use electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain, to gauge the speed from the point at which the sound of a word enters the ear to when the brain has processed its meaning.

“Compared to other imaging technologies, EEG is much more sensitive to processing speed,” Tillman said. “We can measure how quickly the brain is moving from one process to the next using the millisecond time scale of the EEG. This is critical because MS damages the brain’s white matter, which is vital for the fast and accurate transmission of signals from one part of the brain to another.”

The study will include 50 multiple sclerosis patients who suffer from speech comprehension problems, 50 other multiple sclerosis patients who do not and 50 healthy people. The aim is to identify specific characteristics and associations between patterns of disability and evidence of the disease at key locations along the auditory and language processing streams.

The Center for BrainHealth will work closely with the Clinical Center for Multiple Sclerosis at UT Southwestern and its director, neurologist Elliot M. Frohman.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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