Recovery starts here

Stroke Belt research pays off for patients

As a Carnegie Foundation top-tier research institution, the University of South Carolina attracts talent from around the globe. But it’s not just our reputation that draws researchers to the Palmetto State. The university’s location provides unique opportunities for scholarship and collaboration. Our series of stories about research that can only be done here originally ran in USC Times this fall.

South Carolina’s high stroke rate is not good news for the state, but it makes researcher Julius Fridriksson’s work particularly relevant.

A SmartState endowed chair and professor in the Department of Communication Science and Disorders in the Arnold School of Public Health, Fridriksson studies how a person’s brain recovers from a stroke, paying particular attention to how stroke affects communication. In 2016, he was awarded an $11.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research stroke recovery and work to improve the lives and communication skills of patients after they suffer strokes.

More than one-third of people who have strokes suffer from aphasia, a condition caused by a brain injury that affects a person’s ability to speak, write, read and understand language. Fridriksson’s grant created the Center for the Study of Aphasia Recovery at Carolina. 

“The reason why South Carolina is important with regard to location is that the stroke rate here is very high. This gives us access to patients more than other places where stroke rates are lower,” Fridriksson says. “And the benefit of a large lab like ours in a place like this is that we serve a lot of these patients. We include them in our studies and they receive free treatment and rehabilitation.”

South Carolina is part of the “Stroke Belt,” a group of Southeastern states with high stroke death rates, while the Midlands area has one of the highest stroke rates in the country. In addition, half of all strokes in South Carolina occur in people under age 60. The average age for patients in Fridriksson’s study is mid-50s.

“For a while, we’ve been seeing a stroke decrease in the older population, but the overall stroke rate is not going down. The stroke rate in younger people is going up,” he says, adding that while many of the causes of stroke are the same regardless of the patient’s age, younger people have a greater chance of recovering from stroke.

Fridriksson’s work relies heavily on detailed pictures of the brains of stroke patients made at the McCausland Center for Brain Imaging at Carolina. Those pictures show blood flow and functional activity of the brain, helping researchers understand changes in brain function related to stroke and recovery. Fridriksson and his team work with stroke patients who have aphasia in both the first days and weeks after a stroke, and in long-term recovery. 

About 100 patients a year get full diagnostic and rehabilitation treatment in the aphasia center, says Fridriksson, who came to Carolina in 2001. “The stroke rate here was a huge factor in me coming here,” he explains. “The department was a good department on the upswing, but the location and access to stroke patients was a huge reason.”  

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