On 15 January the MOOC Language Testing During Awake Brain Surgery will be launched. Read the interview with Roelien Bastiaanse, professor of neurolinguistics and lead educator of the course.
Roelien Bastiaanse apologizes for walking slowly as she makes her way through the corridors of the Groningen Harmonie Complex. She is still on crutches after falling from her bike on an icy road. ‘I hadn’t heard the amber weather warning’, she sighs. Bastiaanse has agreed to meet us in her office, where a striking painting hangs on the wall: ‘James Parkinson and Paul Broca’, she explains. ‘Parkinson is the man who gave his name to the neurological condition he first identified, and Broca was the man who discovered that the left half of the brain is important to language.’
Text: Annemieke van der Kolk / Communication Office UG
Bastiaanse never intended to become a professor of neurolinguistics. ‘I originally wanted to study medicine, but after a moped accident and everything that involved, I’d had enough of the medical world for a while.’ She decided to study Dutch Language and Culture in Amsterdam and then become a teacher. But things didn’t go entirely according to plan. ‘I was intrigued by linguistics. While studying in Amsterdam, I took a course unit on patholinguistics, which is about language disorders and the brain. A fascinating subject taught by a brilliant lecturer. I was particularly interested in aphasia, a language disorder caused by brain damage.’
After graduating, Bastiaanse spent seven years working as a clinical linguist with an aphasia team in a rehabilitation centre in Enschede. ‘I noticed that the language tests for aphasia patients paid very little attention to verbs. Producing verbs is much harder for this group than remembering nouns. All the conjugations and the word order make it very complicated. I wasn’t really concentrating on research at that point, until Frans Zwarts, former Rector Magnificus and Professor of Dutch Linguistics at the UG, offered me a position in Groningen. It was conditional on gaining a PhD, so that’s when I became a researcher. I specialized in the use of verbs in aphasia tests and now give lectures on devising language tests based on this principle. It’s amazing to think that thanks to our research here in Groningen, verbs are now included in aphasia testing.’
Verbs are now also used during awake brain surgery, again thanks to Bastiaanse’s research group. ‘But’, she says, ‘it’s important to stress that you can’t achieve something like this on your own. I've had so much support from my colleagues. Neurolinguist Roel Jonkers, for example, shoulders much of the burden, also relating to coordinating teaching. I'd never have got this far without help.’ This is also true of developing the MOOC (a Massive Open Online Course) in Language Testing during Awake Brain Surgery. Bastiaanse is very enthusiastic about this, and particularly pleased that in devising the course, she was able to work alongside specialists in both medicine and technology. ‘It’s definitely brought us closer together.’
Bastiaanse has even carried out the language test during awake brain surgery herself. It’s not one of her regular duties, but she can stand in if required. ‘The surgeon tries to remove a brain tumour without damaging the areas responsible for language. During the test, electric stimuli are administered to the areas of the brain thought to control language. A wrong answer while the stimulus is being given indicates that the surgeon is encroaching on a language area and must not remove that tissue. This sometimes means that part of a tumour is left in place to prevent someone from losing their language ability. ‘It was quite scary the first time, but it was fascinating to actually see a human brain. It left a deep impression. The huge responsibility you feel for the patient during an operation means that you develop a strong bond with that person. If I lose focus, he or she could lose the ability to speak. The cooperation within an operation team is fantastic. Everyone focuses on their own task. No-one is better or more important than anyone else, because if they don't all pull together, the patient will die.’
Collaboration is an important aspect of Bastiaanse’s work. She is particularly proud of developing the Master’s degree programme, which is taught in association with the Speech and Language Pathology programme for speech therapists at Hanze UAS Groningen. ‘Becoming a speech therapist requires a great deal of linguistic knowledge. This is something we can provide. We’ve really integrated the programmes. We’ll be sharing the teaching and ultimately training academically qualified speech therapists, who can treat patients. This makes Groningen unique; academics have never been allowed to treat patients before. The programme can also be used as extra training for practising speech therapists.’ Bastiaanse will soon be spending part of her time working in Moscow. ‘We’re setting up a research programme there, together with the Higher School of Economics. You could say we’re exporting knowledge generated at the UG.’
‘The future of neurolinguistics? Apps, serious gaming and virtual reality are becoming increasingly useful. We’re currently developing aphasia tests for tablets. The days of a speech therapist with a ring binder on their lap will soon be a thing of the past,’ she laughs. ‘We want to study more foreign languages too. The number of international students and PhD candidates with expertise in another language is rising. We’ve created an international community. So yes, I feel like a proud mum.’
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