In the field of communication disorders, the most common student complaint about a class is probably that it contains too much basic science, and not enough application.   As someone who does research on speech perception, I know I sometimes have difficulty convincing students that basic science research is relevant to them, or to their goals as clinicians.

But the reality is that much of what we know about therapy originally came from basic science, from researchers trying to apply this research-based knowledge to treatment of individuals with language difficulties.  And it is only in more recent decades that we have started to make such clear divisions between basic vs. applied research.

It is certainly the case that we need more researchers pursuing applied and translational research.  But there is another way to build our research base, and that is by making the connections between existing basic research and clinical questions.

Much of the basic science research that is already being done or has been done has clinical implications – but often these connections can only be seen by people who are directly involved in clinical practice, rather than by the researchers themselves.

For example, see our post on “Does speech therapy change the therapist instead of the client? This research comes entirely from basic science work in speech perception. Yet it has important relevance to clinicians treating individuals with speech disorders (something not pointed out in the basic science papers on the topic).

Another classic example comes from work by Janet Werker and Richard Tees.  In 1984, they demonstrated that infants become “attuned” to the sound structure of their native language between 8 and 12 months of age.  Clinically, this implies that it is critically important for doctors to aggressively treat otitis media with effusion during early infancy (a time frame when many pediatricians assumed was fully pre-linguistic and thus of less import).

As a third example, Barbara Landau, Linda Smith, and Susan Jones found that children tend to generalize across objects based on shape.  So, after learning a new word, such as “dax”, they are more likely to think that the word dax is something of the same shape (the item on the left), rather than the same color or same material.

RN why clinician need to love basic science
Image source: Indiana University and Michael Gasser

It isn’t the case that all words in English work like this –  for example, “sponge” refers to things of a particular substance, and sponges can actually come in all different shapes (the ones you use to wash your car tend to be figure-8 shaped, not rectangle, for instance).  But many words are based on shape (such as ball, and mitten, which can be made of different materials but need to be a particular shape to get that name).  As it turns out, the bias to generalize by shape has to develop – but once children learn this bias, their word acquisition in general speeds up.  Larissa Samuelson found that she could train young children who hadn’t yet learned this bias that words work this way – and when they did, their rate of acquiring new words improved.  That is, the bias seems to be useful for word learning, and word learning in general improves after children learn this useful strategy.  For her MA thesis, Brenda Staley, working with Iowa faculty member Amy Weiss, began looking at this in relation to late talkers – children who had very few words in their spoken vocabulary.  The training simply consisted of teaching them lots of words that met this bias (rather than words that didn’t meet it) – and while the thesis is unpublished, their results suggest that this training had a dramatic effect on the late talkers.  So here, too, a basic science finding (that children tend to focus on shape), provides a suggestion for what items clinicians should work on with children from a clinical population – that you should focus on teaching words that reinforce this bias.

In short, while it is certainly true that we need more translational research, we also need for clinicians (and future clinicians!) to look at the basic science literature, and point out where there are clear implications.  And this is something truly best done by those individuals who are “in the trenches,” seeing clients on a regular basis.

Rochelle Newman is Chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, as well as Associate Director of the Maryland Language Science Center.  She helped found the UMD Infant & Child Studies Consortium  and the University of Maryland Autism Research Consortium.   She is interested in how the brain recognizes words from fluent speech, especially in the context of noise, and how this ability changes with development.