Scientist Profile – Professor Swathi Kiran

Swathi Kiran, PhD, CCC-SLP

Professor of Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences
Director of the Center for Brain Recovery

The Center for Brain Recovery is Boston University’s new research hub dedicated to enhancing diagnosis and improving treatments for people with neurological disorders including stroke, traumatic brain injury, and dementia.

The center’s founding director, Professor Swathi Kiran (who is also affiliated with the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center, the Center for Systems Neuroscience, and the Neurophotonics Center) discussed her passion for studying neuroplasticity as it pertains to brain recovery, her journey as a scientist, and how the interdisciplinary spirit at Boston University has shaped her work.

Professor Swathi Kiran (far right) and team members (from left to right) Maria Varkanitsa, Erin Carpenter, and Danielle Rich prepare for an experiment using functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to collect data during interpersonal interaction.

What is the research focus of the Center for Brain Recovery?

The Center for Brain Recovery is a newly formed center at BU focused on studying individuals with neurological disorders due to a stroke, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or dementia. Before the center was founded, my lab was always interested in studying how people recover language after a stroke, hence our focus on recovery. But now we’re much more interested in identifying what enables people who have a TBI or a stroke to recover and whether we can identify and diagnose people with dementia earlier. I should mention that the Center is having an open-house symposium on April 9th!

Can you describe some of the projects you are working on?

One key area of our research involves developing state-of-the-art methods in neuroimaging and data science to study people who have neurological disorders. We have several projects under that umbrella—possibly the most interesting is a collaboration we have with the Neurophotonics Center and other researchers across BU in which we have developed a wearable brain imaging cap using a technology called functional near infrared spectroscopy (or fNIRS) that study participants can wear and go about their daily activities like walking and talking. This greatly expands the kind of experiments we can run and the data we can collect, as compared to, say, existing neuroimaging technology like a big magnetic resonance imaging machine, which limits what the study participant can do and also limits study conditions to those existing in the lab.

Our experiments with this device are looking at how healthy people think about what they want to say, and then say what they want to say, and how that differs from people who have suffered a stroke. We’re also starting to look at how people with dementia are different. And if we can find brain signatures that show when somebody is speaking correctly and when somebody is having trouble speaking, that would go a long way towards, for example, informing diagnoses.

How does machine learning figure into the center’s research?

We have another large collaboration, this one funded by the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, in which we are attempting to use advanced machine learning models to predict whether patients with stroke or TBI can improve their cognitive skills given enough therapy. This will be another huge contribution to the field because most patients who have suffered stroke or TBI want to know whether they can improve, and this will give them some concrete information about that.

Can you tell us more about some of the patients who do recover, and what kind of treatment helps them?

We have developed an intensive 15-week program for young adults whose cognitive abilities have been impacted by stroke, brain tumor, or TBI and so are struggling to transition into, or back into, college. The whole project started in 2016 when a parent approached us about their child who had suffered a brain injury that derailed their ability to go back to college. We did not know at the time whether therapy could help young adults with such severe brain injuries function and succeed at college, so we set out to develop a curriculum and to study its impact on our patients. We downloaded open-source courses from MIT and Yale, and restructured the material in a way that facilitated their rehabilitation, essentially helping them re-learn how to study and how to memorize information. We also administered practice tests and exams.

To date, many program participants have been able to return to college, albeit with a partial course load and other supports, and they are thriving, whereas previously it seemed their only option was to be confined to a nursing home or to their family home with full-time care. From a research standpoint, the project has been a huge success because it has taught us so much about brain recovery and neuroplasticity, and how the brain especially in young adults can relearn new information and new strategies.

Were you always interested in the brain?

Even as early as high school, I knew that I wanted to study the brain. Back then I wanted to study how people dream and the languages they dream in. Since then, I have focused on neuroplasticity and language recovery after a stroke, especially after graduate school. In fact, we recently published a paper which essentially reviews all we’ve learned about neuroplasticity in the post-stroke brain. It culminates decades of work and hopefully represents a huge paradigm shift in that it demonstrates that the damaged brain has a much greater capacity to improve and recover than we thought.

What is your favorite part about working at BU?

Faculty at BU often go out of their comfort zone in the spirit of collaboration, and it’s this energy for interdisciplinary work I’ve benefited from most. It’s also what I aim to foster as part of the Center for Brain Recovery. The more varied the disciplines, the better the outcomes have been because people with completely different perspectives come in and try to solve a problem. We almost always figure out solutions because we have everyone from a computer scientist to an electrical engineer to a clinician sitting in the room trying to solve the complexities of the brain.

I also love the entrepreneurial support one can find at BU. I was able to cofound a company that is now successfully providing therapy to thousands of patients. To be able to take what has been developed in my lab and deploy it to hospitals has been a unique gift.

What is a fact about you that surprises people?

Most people know I’m originally from India, but they don’t know that I lived for several years in Tanzania and learned to speak Swahili. At one point in my life, I was able to speak five languages fluently!


This interview was conducted and edited by Jim Cooney.

Related article: ”New BU Center for Brain Recovery Aims to Advance Treatments for Stroke, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s”.