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Dysphasia Expert Opens Research Lab at JMU

By: Jordan Pye
Posted: February 19, 2010

Last fall the Department of Communications Sciences and Disorders welcomed new faculty member Dr. Christy Ludlow, who brought with her a wealth of research experience and new opportunities for CSD students to explore.

Ludlow received her doctorate at New York University in New York City, and previously worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. As a senior investigator in the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, she trained post-doctorate fellows and conducted laboratory research on speech, voice, and swallowing. Ludlow made the move to JMU this year in part to coordinate the CSD’s doctorate program.

“I feel very strongly that we need to improve our PhD training in my profession,” Ludlow said, “so that people can do evidence-based research [that can] improve the profession and the basis for what we do in clinical practice.” In addition to working with doctorate students she also teaches a course on voice disorders, and brought her laboratory and instruments for students to use while learning to conduct clinical practice studies.

Although her transition to JMU has been a welcoming one, Ludlow found that after coming from a large, government-run biomedical institution, getting her first projects started at a new university could be a little challenging.

“I came with an NIH grant and had to find people on campus to collaborate with me on doing that research, but I’ve now found the people that I needed,” Ludlow said. “JMU has lots of wonderful resources, but they’re all sort of tucked away in little corners in different places so it was a bit of a hunt and peck.”

Now with an assembled team, Ludlow works with students in the speech pathology masters program to research the use of different sensory stimuli to induce swallowing.

“Swallowing is dependent on having sensory stimulation in your throat, and so I’m trying to see if we can induce swallowing in normal throats using sensory stimulation and see what happens in the brain,” Ludlow explained. She hopes this could lead to the development of techniques for treating stroke patients who have swallowing problems such as dysphagia.

Ludlow is also currently working to set up a new clinic at Rockingham Memorial Hospital for voice and swallowing disorders, a collaboration between the hospital and JMU that will serve the local community.  In addition she is collaborating on a NIH project called the Dystonia Coalition, a five-year grant awarded to Emory University to study the rare voice disorder spasmodic dysphonia (SD). SD causes involuntary laryngeal muscle spasms that prevent patients from controlling their voice, resulting in a profound communication disability.

The study is spread between Emory, New York University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the Medical College of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, with JMU as the coordinating center. No other formal, large-scale clinical treatment trial has ever been conducted, so the Dystonia Coalition’s purpose is not only to study the impact and origins of SD, but also to develop valid tools to diagnose and measure the severity of the condition. Scored recordings of patients and a recently-developed standard method for diagnosis, the SD-Diagnosis and Assessment Procedure (SD-DAP), could allow providers without specialty training to assess SD and related disorders as accurately as field experts. The study also evaluates the effectiveness of botulinum toxin, the current widely used treatment for SD, with a visual analog scale to measure speaking effort and the accepted Voice Handicap Scale to measure quality of life with the disorder. The results of this study should provide the essential basis for understanding SD and supporting future studies to compare new treatments.

“I hope to write research grants from the NIH…to try and get more research support here on campus,” Ludlow said. “I’ve done one so far, I’ve got a few more to go.”

In the long run, Ludlow would like to see her work at JMU have a lasting impact on the Communication Sciences and Disorders department.

 “I hope to help shape the PhD program a little bit more,” Ludlow said, “so that it becomes recognized as a leader in clinical practice research in our field.”