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SHS Professor Laura Hahn gets grant to study children with fragile X syndrome

Speech and Hearing Science Department assistant professor Laura Hahn is launching a study in August in hopes of developing ways to help children with fragile X syndrome communicate better.

Hahn received a grant of $454,977 over three years from The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health, aimed at identifying the contribution of child and maternal gestures and responsive maternal language input to word learning opportunities, production practice, and spoken vocabulary growth for toddlers with fragile X syndrome (FXS).

Fragile X syndrome is an inherited genetic condition that causes a range of developmental delays, including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment. Affected individuals usually have delayed development of speech and language by the age of two.

Data collection will start on Aug. 1, Hahn said, and take place across the country.

“Fragile X syndrome is a rare neurogenetic disorder, so that means we will go to where the families live to collect the data,” she said. “It is easier for us to travel because the child participants are all toddlers.”

While existing research in FXS has revealed impairments in child gesture use, Hahn says in her abstract describing the study, no studies to date have examined the link between gesture use and the onset of first words prospectively.

“Our long-term goal is to develop and evaluate early language interventions for these children,” she said.

The term maternal language input is more than just a mom saying a word, and a child repeating it, Hahn said. “High-quality input involves what mothers are saying and how they use non-linguistic cues like gesture to connect their words to the objects children are playing with,” she said. “The timing of spoken words with the gesture cues also play a role in language learning.”

The study will involve toddlers with FXS and their biological mothers completing three assessments over a one-year period starting when the child is between 18 and 24 months. The mother and toddler will be observed to measure child gesture use, child vocabulary, and maternal gesture use and language input.

The ultimate goal, Hahn said, is helping children with FXS communicate. “It will improve their interactions with others in the community and helps with independence,” she said.

The next step for Hahn is conducting cross-syndrome comparisons between children with FXS and children with Down syndrome. A recent pilot grant from the Center on Health, Aging & Disability (CHAD) has allowed Hahn to examine similar skills in children with Down syndrome.

“Together these studies will support my long-term goal of designing early language interventions that build on the strengths of each population,” she said. “Early interventions have long-term and lasting effects on the outcomes of those who receive them.”

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