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Neuro rehab research

Gestures ‘can improve communication in aphasia’

Using hand signals receives more attention if verbal communication is impeded, research reveals

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Using hand gestures can improve communication among people living with language disorders like aphasia, new research has established. 

Communication and language problems are a common consequence of stroke and brain injury, leaving survivors feeling frustration at the barriers in them being able to communicate as they had done previously. 

A new study has found that in people who have no limitations in verbal communication, hand gestures are granted less attention – but that listeners shift their attention when the speaker has a speech impediment, and focus more on the speaker’s non-verbal information provided through gestures.

Previous research on aphasia indicated that patients often try to express their needs using hand gestures, but that others often pay relatively little attention to such non-verbal forms of communication – but this research involved participants who did not live with language disorders, said the team from the University of Zurich. 

Now, a new study from the University, together with researchers from the Netherlands and Japan, looked at whether gestures receive more attention if the verbal communication is impeded by aphasia. 

The researchers showed healthy volunteers video clips in which people with and without speech disorders described an accident and a shopping experience. 

As the participants watched the video clips, their eye movements were recorded.

“Our results show that when people have very severe speaking difficulties and produce less informative speech, their conversation partner is more likely to pay attention to their hand movements and to look longer at their gestures,” says Dr Basil Preisig, of the Department of Comparative Language Science at UZH. 

“For people with aphasia, it may be worth using gestures more in order to be better understood by the other person.”

The new study not only illustrates the importance of gestures in communication, but also reinforces their relevance in speech rehabilitation. 

“Individuals with aphasia should be encouraged in therapy to use all available forms of communication,” says Dr Preisig. 

“This includes increased use of gestures. In addition, their family and friends need to learn about hand gestures to improve communication.”

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