STEM Shoutout: Dr. Jessica Richardson

Headshot of Dr. Jessica Richardson
Dr. Jessica Richardson has worked with people with post-stroke aphasia, or with other acquired cognitive or communication deficits, for more than 20 years.

UNM associate professor of speech and hearing sciences works to detect rare communication disease


Dr. Jessica Richardson, a UNM associate professor of speech and hearing sciences, alongside collaborators at UNC-Chapel Hill and UT-Austin, has been awarded a supplement to a grant by NIH National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders titled “Speech profiles and cue responsiveness in primary progressive aphasia.” 


Aphasia is a language disorder that involves deficits in speaking, understanding, reading, and/or writing. Primary progressive aphasia (PPA) is a clinical syndrome characterized by gradual onset of aphasia followed by progressive worsening, and is different from aphasia that is caused by a stroke or brain injury. It is a relatively new condition for health professionals, and both diagnosis and treatment can be a challenge. 


Richardson has a broad body of publications and funded projects focused on improving assessment and treatment techniques to help people recover from lost communication and cognitive abilities, including aphasia due to stroke or progressive disease. Because people are social creatures, aphasia is particularly devastating because it affects the ability to communicate. While Richardson has been studying stroke-induced aphasia for many years, she has only recently begun investigating this syndrome, as the consensus diagnostic criteria were just established in 2011. 


“The goal of this project is to develop diagnostic methods that express and characterize relevant speech and language features quantitatively, efficiently, and reliably. This will improve diagnostic, and subsequent treatment, approaches for persons with this devastating disease,” Richardson said. 


This multi-site research team, led by collaborators at UNC-Chapel Hill, hopes to introduce a way to create a precise way to detect and treat PPA and also to spread awareness of this disease with a focus on how it affects communication and families around the world. 


“With improved diagnosis, we will also lay the groundwork for precision-based treatments, as certain speech and language characteristics will likely be linked to certain brain pathologies and phenotypes,” she said. “There is so much need, and so much work to be done – not only for a cure but for real help until we have that cure. Like improved detection methods, so that work to slow the progressive language loss can begin immediately, as with any other progressive disease. Individualized treatments that can help people with PPA maintain their speech and language abilities for as long as possible. Strategies, technological advancements, and more, to help them tell and bank their voices, their stories, their legacies.”


Richardson says it can be challenging to work with PPA-diagnosed patients and their families when she’s not able to give answers or a curative treatment that the patients hoped for. Yet, she knows that this research is helping people and providing a chance for changing the future of the disease.


“I hope this project will lead to even more funding and advocacy for PPA and related disorders, so that we can better serve, and have solutions for, New Mexican families, and families all over the world affected by PPA,” she said.