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Maria Ivanova

Alumna Maria Ivanova uses the latest research to evaluate speech and language disorders in her clients at the Moscow Federal Center of Speech Pathology and Neurorehabilitation.

Photo courtesy of: OHIO Today

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Beyond Words: The pioneering research of alumna Maria Ivanova will offer new tools in the fight against aphasia in her homeland

Of all the potential debilitating effects of a stroke, perhaps none is so traumatic as aphasia. The neurological disorder, which affects a patient’s ability to speak, comprehend, read, write and think verbally, can literally leave patients speechless. In many ways aphasia attacks a patient’s very identity, said clinical psychologist Maria Ivanova, a 2009 alumna of the Communication and Speech Disorders (CSD) program.

“Language [is part of what] gives us our personality,” said Ivanova, who earned her doctorate degree at Ohio University. “There are ways to compensate for physical impairments, but there are no good ways to do that when it comes to language.”

While there is no cure for the devastating disorder, new tests developed by Ivanova, who works at the Moscow Federal Center of Speech Pathology and Neurorehabilitation, may help shed light on the condition — and lead to more promising future treatments.

Ivanova first worked with aphasia patients as a third-year student at Lomonosov Moscow State University, and she was drawn to the way the disorder demonstrated how our mind works — and sometimes doesn’t. Comprehending a sentence, for example, is often as much about memory as it is about understanding individual words, an insight that isn’t obvious before working with aphasics.

“We don’t realize it consciously, but to comprehend a complex sentence, we need to remember what was said in the beginning to understand what we hear at the end,” she explained. Our language processing skills draw on a host of different mental powers, and untangling how they work together is one of the challenges of aphasia research.

As she delved deeper into her studies, she realized that perhaps the best way to further the research in her own country, Russia, was to head to the United States. There is a more robust community of aphasia research and researchers in America and with the right training, she could help transform the direction of aphasia diagnosis and research in her home country. The nationally ranked CSD program at Ohio University, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in September, turned out to be the perfect fit.

While at OHIO, she and Brooke Hollowell, director of the university’s neurolinguistics laboratory, began developing standardized testing that could be given to all Russian aphasics to assess their comprehension abilities. Such tests are common in America and many other countries, but Russian doctors have relied primarily on qualitative assessments of individual patients to provide treatment.

Still under development, the test could have an impact on thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of aphasia sufferers. Nearly 500,000 Russians suffer from strokes each year, and about 20 percent experience at least some temporary symptoms of aphasia.

To learn more about Ivanova’s development of standardized tests to help Russian aphasics, read the full version of “Beyond Words” in the Fall 2012 issue of Ohio Today magazine or access the article online.