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Northwestern’s Aphasia Center to Pioneer Services, Hope for Those Living with the Condition

Northwestern University Aphasia Center (NUAC) opened May 5 with an invitation to the community to come for lunch and a tour of the new facility.

The center’s director, Cynthia Thompson, the Ralph and Jean Sundin Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, called the day “10 years in the making.”

“This has been a dream of mine for many years,” Thompson said. “I promise I won’t get teary, but I’m very, very happy we’ve been successful in building this center.”

Aphasia is a language and communication challenge stemming from injury to the brain, usually because of stroke, trauma, or a neurodegenerative condition. The new Aphasia Center, located within the Center for Audiology, Speech, Language and Learning, will offer the most up-to-date treatments and activities designed to help those with aphasia better communicate with their family, friends, and community. Group programs include a range of meeting groups, such as book clubs, film clubs, music clubs, and exercise groups, all designed with the needs of people with aphasia in mind.

Thompson, who was awarded a $12 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2013, the largest grant given to a School of Communication researcher, will continue her research at the Center for the Neurobiology of Language Recovery, which she also directs, at Northwestern. One of her goals for NUAC is to bring together researchers and clinicians in other aphasia centers from around the country to investigate how participation in communication and community activities improves the quality of life of people with aphasia. Research conducted at the center could potentially expand existing treatments.

“As a department, one of the best in the world, we have three missions,” said Sumitrajit Dhar, chair of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “We grow the science, we train the next generation of researchers, and we serve those in the community who need our help. Because of Cindy Thompson’s leadership, this center combines all those parts, with an equal emphasis on all those areas.”

The center’s support group also gives families a way of connecting with each other through regular meetings. No two people who’ve had a stroke are the same, and all people who have aphasia need treatments that extend far beyond typical hospital stays, or what traditional health care centers are able to provide, Thompson said.

“Hospitals are set up to do impairment-based treatment, but they’re not really focused on life participation,” she said. “That’s why an aphasia center is so important. We can work long term with people with aphasia in ways that hospitals and typical rehabilitation centers can’t.” 

Many of the groups at the center had been organized long before the building existed, but now with a centralized location, the leadership team has the capability of offering new and unique programs.

Kent Kelly has aphasia and has been a member of the book club for nine months. He attended the grand opening of the center and said it’s helped him immensely.

“It’s been a very good process,” he said. “We pick our books. And we disagree profoundly.” He laughed. “It’s all very good.”

Frank Sears, an area resident, came to the opening in hopes of finding out more about the programs for a loved one.

“My brother has expressive aphasia,” he said. “No treatment for him has helped so far, and I was hoping the center will help. So far, I’m been happy with what I’ve heard about the center.”

For more information about the center, see www.communicationclinic.northwestern.edu. Or call 847-491-3165.

By Cara Lockwood