Three questions for Sean Speese

Sean SpeeseSean Speese, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the OHSU Jungers Center for Neurosciences Research.

His career has spanned 17 years of research in invertebrate model systems. 

What questions are you trying to answer in your work?

Our main overarching goal is to understand how cells regulate expression of specific genes in time and space. For example, neurons in our brains are quite large, highly arborized and can span long distances.

However, these cells are tasked with responding locally to cues in the brain, which requires them to precisely regulate gene expression in time and space. The ability of neurons to perform these actions is critical for learning and memory and gets disrupted in various neurological diseases.

What is the most important aspect of support that OHSU provides to you currently and how would you like this or other support to grow in the future?

One of the critical events that helped me launch my career at OHSU is being awarded the Oregon Scientist Development Award through the Medical Research Foundation (MRF).  This provided critically needed funding to generate preliminary data for my initial grant submissions to the NSF and NIH.

In the future I hope to see OHSU continue to support young researchers asking basic biological questions in model organisms.

If you could pick one brain health tip to share with our readers, what would it be? What do you prioritize when it comes to your own brain health?

I can’t say that this advice will apply to everyone as we all have varying genetic backgrounds and outside environmental factors, but there is a growing body of evidence indicating that regular exercise can improve brain health and function.

I myself use exercise as one of the main ways to promote my own brain health. In particular, I enjoy riding my mountain bike fast through the woods. The graduate students will attest that it is not uncommon for me to show up in lab with scrapes from a recent bike crash.


Want to hear more from Dr. Speese? He’s the featured speaker at OMSI’s Science Pub Hillsboro on August 31.


Three questions with memory expert Matt Lattal

lattal-webMatt Lattal, Ph.D., is an associate professor of behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine and faculty member in the Neuroscience Graduate Program. 

What projects are you currently working on how do you collaborate with fellow faculty members? 

Work in my lab is focused on two very broad questions: How do memories form? And once they are formed, how can they be eliminated or inhibited? We know a lot about the behavioral conditions and cellular and molecular processes that are involved in normal memory formation. In my lab, we are especially interested in the mechanisms that are involved in the development and inhibition of particularly salient memories – those involving trauma or drugs of abuse. We have found that repeated exposure to cues associated with trauma or abused substances results in a weakening of the learned behavioral responses (fear or drug-seeking) through a process known as extinction.

Our lab is particularly interested in trying to promote this extinction process by pairing extinction trials with manipulations of cellular and molecular memory mechanisms. Recent work has focused on histone acetylation – we have found that general or specific histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors coupled with extinction can result in a persistent suppression of these salient memories, presumably because HDAC inhibitors relax the protein complex that packages DNA, thereby promoting transcription and long-term memory formation. We focus on systemic manipulations and manipulations within a specific circuit involving the medial prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus.

There are many opportunities for fellow faculty to participate in my research. My lab is primarily a behavioral lab. We manipulate cellular and molecular processes, but we do this in vivo, with a behavioral measure as an experimental endpoint. I like to collaborate with people who are interested in some of these cellular and molecular processes (e.g., histone acetylation), but at a level of molecular analysis that is beyond the scope of what we do in my lab. For example, some of my collaborations have included researchers who help us examine how individual HDACs operate at a molecular level to regulate expression of specific genes involved in memory.

What is the most important aspect of support that OHSU provides to you currently and how would you like this or other support to grow in the future? 

The main thing that OHSU has provided me is an amazing intellectual environment. It is an extremely collaborative place and I can’t count the number of collaborations that I have had with other PIs since I’ve been here. I am always open to collaborating with anyone looking to examine memory effects that may develop from pharmacological, genetic or other manipulations. A great way to foster an already collaborative environment is to continue to invest in new assistant professors who bring the latest approaches and technologies with them.

A hypothetical: If you could have one tool that would solve a seemingly impenetrable problem in your work, what would it do? You have unlimited resources to design this tool, so think big. 

This is a hard one. I study learning and memory, which are unobservable processes. We can’t ask rats and mice to articulate their experiences, so we have to make inferences about learning and memory from their behavior. When you throw genetic, viral or pharmacological manipulations into the mix, you have to think very critically about situations in which your behavioral measure may reflect processes other than memory (such as sensory perception, motivation and motor performance processes). You can look at brain changes, but these, too, come with assumptions about how cellular processes (such as long-term potentiation or changes in dendritic branching) translate into memory representations. We also know that memory is extremely fallible in people, so even giving animals the ability to introspect and articulate their memories verbally would not be of much help. So the impenetrable problem in my field is getting access to an accurate neurobiological readout of what memory is. If I could wave my magic science-fiction wand, that readout is what I would like to have. But it would also mean that we wouldn’t need to answer any more questions, which would make my life much less interesting.

Want to hear more from Dr. Lattal? In 2014, he provided memory improvement tips on OPB’s “Think Out Loud.” Listen to the broadcast here.


This blog post originally appeared on OHSU’s internal “Inside the SOM” blog, authored by Rachel Shafer, Senior Communications Specialist in the OHSU School of Medicine.

Meet Peter Steyger: The man behind breakthrough research into hearing loss

Peter Steyger underwent speech therapy in 1968 at the University of Manchester with Gordon Campbell and his mother, Peggy Steyger.

Peter Steyger underwent speech therapy in 1968 at the University of Manchester with Gordon Campbell and his mother, Peggy Steyger.

As a child, Peter Steyger, Ph.D. was cured of meningitis, but the drug that saved him also caused his hearing loss.

Now a neuroscience researcher, Dr. Steyger recently found that patients stricken with dangerous bacterial infections are at greater risk of hearing loss than previously recognized.

We sat down with Dr. Steyger to learn some more about his research and what comes next.

That’s a great photo of you and your mom with your speech therapist. Can you tell us a little more about it and how your own experiences shaped your research?

The photo was taken of me with my mother, Peggy Steyger, and Gordon Campbell, a speech therapist and coach for my mother, who was to teach me how to listen and talk. Gordon Campbell was at the University of Manchester (UK) at the time, where my mother and I would attend sessions with him to improve our own daily speech therapy sessions.

At the time of the photo, I was about six years old, and had been receiving speech therapy for close to three years.  This speech training allowed me to be mainstreamed and obtain a regular grammar school education.

I was in speech therapy because I had lost my hearing though meningitis, streptomycin treatment (an aminoglycoside like gentamicin or kanamycin) and as the recent manuscript showed,  the combination of infection-induced inflammation likely potentiated the ototoxic effect of these aminoglycosides.

My own experience has informed my research, primarily through the realization that most ototoxicity experiments are done in healthy pre-clinical models, and yet aminoglycosides are only given to very sick patients to save their lives.

What’s been the most interesting development in your area in the last two years?

One of the most interesting developments in auditory neuroscience that has affected our research in ototoxicity is the realization that the cochlea is not an immunologically-privileged site, and that in fact the cochlea and inner ear does in fact respond to vascular and immunological activation.

Lower power image of the cochlear coils, containing hair cells

Lower power image of the cochlear coils, containing hair cells

This has been characterized by our colleague, Dennis Trune, who established that the cochlea is immunologically activated by middle ear infections, and this could alter auditory function. More importantly, these inner ear changes may alter auditory function.

What’s next for you? What projects are you currently working on/looking forward to?

To follow up on our existing data and determine if other sources of inflammation (e.g., viral, fungal) can also potentiate aminoglycoside-induced hearing loss, i.e., establish whether it is inflammation in general that potentiates drug-induced hearing loss, or if there is something specific about bacterial-induced inflammation that potentiates drug-induced hearing loss.

We also want to determine if individuals with bacterial infection and inflammation have a greater prevalence of hearing loss, and does that hearing loss occur to a greater extent than in other individuals treated with aminoglycosides without systemic inflammation (i.e., prophylactically).  

What is the most important aspect of support that OHSU provides to you currently and how would you like this or other support to grow in the future?

Peter Steyger

Peter Steyger, Ph.D.

OHSU has a vast array of research expertise in a wide variety of areas that are surprisingly (to me) integrated when it comes to translating bench science into bedside practice.

I have found our basic and clinical colleagues to be very collegial, collaborative and supportive. This is further enhanced by the seed-funding of newly-innovative ideas (acorns) into thriving translational and clinical research projects by OCTRI (oaktrees; the Oregon Clinical and Translational Research Institute) that support our communities statewide and globally.


Learn more about Dr. Steyger’s recent study:

OregonLive: Antibiotic could cause hearing loss in preemies, study indicates
U.S. News & World Report: Certain antibiotics linked to hearing loss, mouse study finds
KPSU Learning to Grow [PODCAST]: Hearing loss caused by antibiotics is worse in sick patients?

Q&A with OBI Scientist Dr. Bill Rooney

It happened quietly. Without much pomp or circumstance, hundreds of scientists have been hard at work – exploring the inner workings of our brain. From blooming biotech to impassioned community advocacy, the Pacific Northwest has become a hotbed for neuroscience.

We sat down with OHSU Brain Institute Senior Scientist and graduate Neuroscience faculty member, Bill Rooney, Ph. D., to hear where regional neuroscience research is headed, including the burgeoning “Northwest NeuroNeighborhood.”

When you compare the Pacific Northwest neurotech network with what’s happening in other parts of the country, how do we fare?

image001The gravitational centers of neurotech are in New York, Boston, the Bay area and LA. But there are also great things going on in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle is an emerging neurotech powerhouse.

In Portland, OSHU has tremendous strength and breadth in neuroscience. The Vollum Institute is one of the top basic neuroscience institutes in the country.

Imaging technologies are key in neuroscience, and OHSU is an emerging leader in this area with substantial investments in advanced imaging capabilities that extend from single molecule to living animals. Behavioral neuroscience and the neuroscience graduate programs are exceptionally well-ranked academic programs, and have outstanding faculty and leadership.

Why does Oregon need a regional neuro hub?

To compete more effectively and more rapidly advance new discoveries to change lives. The Northwest NeuroNeighborhood takes a lot of the talent that already exists in the area and makes the most of it. Researchers are great at discovery, but the other aspects of developing these ideas into tools and drugs and devices that advance human health, that’s where things often fall apart. Discoveries are often not taken past that point. Having ideas and novel concepts is wonderful, but, if they don’t really rise to the level where they’re advancing human health, that’s a real shame.

This network attempts to cross that divide, to introduce people that have these ideas to other individuals who can identify ideas that will impact human health, and then bring those ideas out of the lab and into the community.

Having a regional hub also helps keep the public involved, which is important. That’s one aspect of science that’s often lacking.

How closely related are the Pacific NW network and President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative?

A lot of the goals that were advanced by President Obama through his BRAIN Initiative were exactly what we were already doing across the region. The Allen Institute had big hand in defining the objectives in the White House BRAIN Initiative.

What’s the top goal of the regional neurotech hub?

Our number one goal is to advance neuroscience activity across the board in the Northwest. A strategy to accomplish this is to increase interactions and collaborations in the region and keep people informed about what’s going on. When new opportunities come along, you often don’t have much time to respond. To be competitive, it’s crucial to have some foundation for these relationships that cross institutions before you learn of grant announcements.

Can you tell us about a few opportunities that have emerged from the NeuroNeighborhood so far?nwnn-banner copy

We have started to see some of the benefits of having a regional network of people with shared interests. A small company in Seattle, called M3 Biotechnology, has teamed with scientists at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. Together, they can more effectively test M3’s new small molecule drugs for preserving neurons in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The NW NeuroNeighborhood has also helped strengthen collaborative research on Traumatic Brain Injury being done by OHSU, the University of Washington and Mt. Sinai.

I’m working on a project with Dirk Keene at the University of Washington, Randy Woltjer, an OHSU neuropathologist, Yossi Berlow, an OHSU MD/PhD student, and Jay Nutt and Matt Brodsky of OHSU to look at anatomical features in Parkinson’s that will help identify the disease at earlier stages. This would enable us to provide treatments and develop cohorts earlier – before there’s substantial loss of neurons, while some neurons can still be rescued.

Can this research serve as an economic engine for the region?

That’s always a hope. Because that is an important metric that discoveries are having an impact. The challenge is always the time scale. Research doesn’t work on a business quarter. It’s a much slower and deliberate process.


Learn more about the important work happening at the OHSU Brain Institute. More details on Dr. Rooney’s research can be found here.

Healthy aging and preserving community memories

The Layton Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Center in partnership with the Center for Healthy Communities is launching a first-of-its kind study around brain health intervention. The innovative program aims to boost cognitive health within the African-American community in Portland.

The Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo-imagery (SHARP) study asks African Americans who are 55 or older to engage in community memory building while walking through historically black neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland.

swimming dive copyParticipants will view images of the African-American community in Portland from the 1940’s to 2000’s, and then engage in conversation about what it was like to live and work in those communities.

By promoting both individual memory health and community memory, the study will explore the role that community memory plays in individual health.

The study’s long-term goal is to maintain and increase cognitive health of participants through a multi-layered approach, including physical activity (walking at a comfortable/moderate pace), socializing, conversational remembrance and health education.Billy Webb Elks Club copy

The study investigators chose to target the African American community with healthy aging interventions because data point to disparities in prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias among African Americans compared to white Americans.

African Americans face special challenges in maintaining brain health with higher rates of chronic diseases, like hypertension and diabetes, that are risk factors for cognitive health.

Most notably, qualitative data have shown African Americans have a lower perceived risk of Alzheimer’s disease despite their elevated risk.

If you would like to contribute your family images to the SHARP program, contact Raina Croff at or 503-494-2367.

Read more in The Skanner.


Raina Croff


Raina Croff, Ph.D. is the Senior Research Associate for the Dept. of Public Health and Preventive Medicine.




The SHARP project is sponsored by the CDC-funded Prevention Research Center, the Center for Healthy Communities at Oregon Health & Science University Cooperative Agreement number U48DP005006.

Dietary and lifestyle modifications for migraine prevention

Years ago, my headache mentor at Columbia, Dr. Green, compared a migraineur’s brain to a fancy sports car’s engine. He meant that the brain becomes sensitized to the slightest stimulation and like the engine of a fine sports car, it revs up with the slightest stimulation.

In migraine the 0-60 mph equivalent is a phenomenon of brainstem activation followed by a wave of depolarization (depression of neuronal activity), which originates in the occipital lobes in the back of the head and slowly spreads forward at a rate of 2-5 mm per minute.

This phenomenon is called Cortical Spreading Depression and while we do not understand the exact mechanism of how it is triggered, we know that it can be caused by subtle changes in diet, sleep, stress, dehydration, medications, upper respiratory illness, chronic medical conditions and that it leads to inflammation and pain through blood vessel dilatation. This image of the sensitive migraineur’s brain has stayed with me and is a helpful reminder that modification of these lifestyle risk factors can decrease the frequency of migraine attacks.

Gluten and Other Potential Food Triggers in Migraine

As a resident, I conducted a study aimed to assess the prevalence of migraine in 728 subjects – patients with celiac disease (gluten intolerance) and healthy controls. We were somewhat surprised to find out that 33% of patients with celiac disease suffered from migraine!

The number is probably much higher – possibly up to 45-50% as in our surveys we came across 8 patients with celiac disease who had suffered from debilitating headaches, which were completely resolved with a strict gluten-free diet.

I should point out that Celiac disease may present without any GI symptoms whatsoever. It could often manifest as lack of energy, skin problems, numbness in the extremities or face, headaches or balance difficulties.

Lactose is another common offensive agent, particularly in those who are intolerant. Refined sugar is pro-inflammatory and high-sugar diet invariably causes sugar lows due to increased insulin release.

Hypoglycemia is a known migraine trigger. Other known dietary triggers are tyramine-rich foods such as aged cheeses, beer and wine, chocolate, soy sauce, MSG.

I am not saying that migraine sufferers should all be gluten, lactose and refined sugar-free, however an elimination trial of 4-6 weeks (one food category at a time) is reasonable as they may be hidden triggers for migraine.

Dietary Changes to Prevent Migraine

  • Celiac disease testing with any unexplained GI or neurologic deficits
  • Trial of lactose-free diet
  • Avoid chocolate and tyramine-rich foods
  • Avoid alcohol, especially beer and wine
  • Avoid concentrated sweets and diets high in sugar
  • Eat small, frequent meals to avoid hypoglycemia
  • Limit caffeine consumption to 1 cup per day, eliminate altogether if possible

Lifestyle Modifications to Prevent Migraine

  • Moderate exercise activity of 30 min 3-4 times per week
  • Maintain normal weight
  • Sleep 7-8 hours a night with a regular sleep schedule (undersleep and oversleep both can trigger migraines)
  • Stress reduction is key – incorporate relaxation and meditation techniques on a daily basis, even if it means slowed, focused breathing for 5 min per day
  • Quit tobacco as it is pro-inflammatory and can be a trigger

Alexandra Dimitrova, MD is an Assistant Professor in Neurology at OHSU, who sees patients with headache and pain in the Neurology Wellness Clinic. In her practice she integrates traditional neurologic treatments with acupuncture, dietary and lifestyle changes and other complementary and integrative treatments.

The White House BRAIN Initiative in Oregon

Just over two years ago, President Obama made a dedication to support and enhance neuroscience research through the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN, Initiative. The ultimate goal, a comprehensive map of the human brain under normal conditions and in various disease states, is a daunting and perhaps unattainable task.

However, a year after the announcement, tangible goals and measurable outcomes were further defined by a Working Group of scientists, and we are now beginning to see progress towards these goals.

In the first five years, the BRAIN Initiative will focus on the development of new technologies to study the brain in finer detail.

In the second five years, application of these technologies will help us unlock complexities of the brain to reveal new and fundamental discoveries about brain function.

While the White House is leading the charge in terms of coordination and promotion of BRAIN, the actual dollars come from investments committed by federal agencies, private foundations, biotechnology companies, and academic institutions.

Combined, these groups have pledged over $300 million in support of BRAIN-focused research.

One of the major backers is the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is a federal agency that supports the majority of biological research in the country.

Last September, the NIH made its first investment of $46 million for BRAIN Initiative projects, funding over 100 scientists across the country!

Over the past 15 years, advanced imaging technologies have exploded in the field of neuroscience, allowing us to peer into the living mouse brain with temporal and spatial resolution spanning from the level of individual synapses up to cross-brain circuit function. So, while the idea of developing technologies to advance neuroscience is not new, the BRAIN Initiative is a specific commitment to the need for these technologies, and has kindled a desire in the public and among scientists to see these technologies advance.

Perhaps one of the most important roles of the White House BRAIN team is to unite scientists across disciplines, to inspire collaborations between engineers, neuroscientists, physicists, and computer scientists.

In an effort to advance the goals of the BRAIN Initiative and to strengthen collaborations in our pocket of the country, neuroscientists in Portland and Seattle have formed the Pacific Northwest NeuroNeighborhood.


The major contributors to the Northwest NeuroNeighborhood – the OHSU Brain Institute, the University of Washington, and the Allen Institute for Brain Science – are hosting the second annual NeuroFutures conference in Portland this summer.

With a focus on advances in neurotechnology and innovation, including topics on various imaging techniques, big data analytics, and brain/computer interfaces, the conference is well aligned with the goals of the BRAIN Initiative.

As the BRAIN Initiative continues to roll out and gain momentum, the hope is that not only BRAIN-supported researchers will benefit from these advances in technology, but that it will expand the discovery capacity for the entire field of neuroscience.

Find out more about how you can support brain research.




Kateri Spinelli, Ph.D. is a post doctoral fellow in the Department of Neurology.


Meet Tianyi Mao: Looking at brain circuits in a new light

The Brain Research Awareness and Information Network (BRAINet) is the volunteer outreach organization of the OHSU Brain Institute. Each month, they come together for a lecture luncheon. Tianyi Mao, Ph.D. was a recent guest speaker.

Our brains are the most sophisticated computing machines on the planet. They are amazingly plastic, yet macroscopically their structures are conserved across individuals within a species.

Information, both internal and external, is processed by such stereotypical brain circuits. It flows from one sub-region in the brain to specific targets.

The same way that knowing a circuit diagram for a microchip informs us about how it works, understanding the sequence of information flow in the brain is an essential step towards understanding brain function in both normal and disease conditions.

We use this rationale to try to understand the circuits of the basal ganglia, which are a collection of brain structures critical for movement control and decision-making.

Dysfunction of the basal ganglia contributes to the physical side effects of many neurodegenerative diseases, most notably Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. Alterations in basal ganglia circuits also are associated with behavioral perturbations in drug addiction and neurodegenerative diseases.

Our current understanding of the basal ganglion has been limited by the complexity of this circuitry.

In my laboratory, we examine the information flow within basal ganglia and its interaction and coordination with other key brain areas essential of  movement control and drug addiction.

My team seeks to understand how the brain is wired and what happens after a specific circuit in the brain is inactivated. Through the use of innovative tools including large scale brain imaging, calcium imaging, genetics and optogenetics, we are essentially trying to reverse-engineer the brain to help us understand how it works.

One goal of our research program is to investigate how the circuitry changes during different behaviors (e.g. directed vs. habitual), and in animal models of addiction, which have been crucial in understanding the biological and physical manifestations of drug addiction and substance abuse

Our projects that use different tools to investigate different aspects of the basal ganglia circuitry are expected to be synergistic. With complementary approaches, we hope to better understand the cell-type-specific circuitry, a prerequisite for a thorough understanding of basal ganglia function in health and disease.

YouTube Preview Image

This video is a 3D tracing of neuronal connectivity using viral-mediated fluorescent protein expression. It allows us to follow the potential information flow from one macro region in the brain to its next target. To view more brain images, visit our data collection website. 



Tianyi Mao, Ph.D. is an Assistant Scientist and Principal Investigator for the Mao lab at the Vollum Institute




Would you like to get involved with BRAINet? Join here.

The Neurology Wellness clinic provides an integrated approach to pain

According to a recent Food and Drug Administration report, over 42% of Americans suffer chronic pain and over 10% of those are disabled due to pain.

Undoubtedly our busy schedules with multiple stressors, sedentary lifestyles and poor health habits are contributing to this problem.

Recent years have seen a surge in acupuncture research with strong evidence of its effectiveness for the treatment of chronic low-back pain, migraine and tension headache, carpal tunnel syndrome and most recently – neuropathic pain.

In the Neurology Wellness clinic we apply evidence-based acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary supplements and lifestyle modification advice for the treatment of headache, musculoskeletal pain such as neck and back pain, muscle spasms, neuropathic pain, TMJ, carpal tunnel syndrome, anxiety and stress and many other painful conditions.

Our team has 2 practitioners:

  • Dr. Alexandra Dimitrova, MD, MA is an Assistant Professor of Neurology at OHSU, who trained in medical acupuncture at Harvard University. Following Neurology residency training at Columbia University, Dr. Dimitrova pursued a Post-doctoral research fellowship at OHSU’s ORCCAMIND (Oregon Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurologic Disorders). Her research focus has been to localize and characterize the effect of acupuncture on the peripheral nervous system, correlating the Traditional Chinese Medicine concept of meridians to peripheral nerves. Dr. Dimitrova is funded for these studies by the National Institutes of Health. She strives to be a compassionate and competent physician and to treat the whole person, not just the condition.
  • Ms. Annette (Zoe) Fallian BA, BS, MAOM is a licensed acupuncturist and an adjunct instructor at OHSU, who trained at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in Chicago and later at Oregon College of Oriental Medicine (OCOM). Using her expertise in acupuncture and herbal medicine, she strives to find a unique and personalized approach to each patient’s condition and address not only the physical, but also the emotional aspects of health and wellbeing.

The Neurology Wellness Clinic is located at the Center for Health and Healing, in the Neurology Department, 3303 SW Bond Ave, Portland, OR 97239. We are accepting new patients and the number to call and schedule is 503-494-7772.


Alexandra Dimitrova, MD is an Assistant Professor in Neurology at OHSU, who sees patients with headache and pain in the Neurology Wellness Clinic. In her practice she integrates traditional neurologic treatments with acupuncture, dietary and lifestyle changes and other complementary and integrative treatments.



Stroke survivors continue to heal through the power of music

The Backstrokes: Marlane Venner, Brad Caster, Carol and Ed Edmo, Lee Jordan, Lynn Sweeney, Anne Tillinghast,
Phil Liu and his mother Ellen.

Back in early 2013, we heard about a group of stroke survivors who found their voice and some healing through music in a group known as The Backstrokes. We’re pleased to report that the music group continues to play together…

Since the original blog post, The Backstrokes have been going strong.

We have been joined by guitarist, Keith Parkhurst–a long-time Portland musician, who is naturally good at connecting with people, and finding out what songs they like to sing.

Most of our core group still attends regularly, and we continue to celebrate noticeable improvement in speech and overall communication skills, showing that ongoing recovery continues to be possible even ten years or more after a stroke.

Some of our members also attend speech therapy at the Portland State University Aphasia Program. According to them, singing on a weekly basis, or more, is helpful in “speeding up” the results of those efforts.

Liz & Kate Sterry, Marlane Venner and Anne Tillinghast at the recent Heart & Stroke Walk finish line.

Last fall, we were very happy to add a second group that invites members to bring instruments they already play, or are learning.

The goal of this group is to develop the skills needed to play along with others in impromptu settings.

This is not only an attempt to engage more of the brain in healing, but also to try to facilitate more social and community involvement, which can be severely limited by impaired speech.

For the past two years, Marlane Venner, has been attending both Backstrokes groups, as well as volunteering with us at two skilled nursing facilities.

In spite of numbness and partial paralysis in her right hand, she is also learning to play the ukulele.  In the past few months, her speech has improved enough to start telling me about herself and her life.

She happily states that she is “getting better!” She attributes this, in part, to the variety of  social interactions around each music activity, and from “pushing the envelope” in learning new skills.

This growing friendship is profoundly rewarding on a personal level, and professionally, it encourages us to keep trying new ways to engage people to play music, or in Marlane’s words, to keep “pushing the envelope!”

Learn more at

Hear The Backstrokes play on this KOIN news report from 2013:

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Anne Tillinghast is passionate about inspiring others to sing and play music. She worked at the Oregon Stroke Center at OHSU for 13 years before starting The Backstrokes group for Stroke Survivors in 2012. Her varied work experience also includes singing to help teach language skills in developmental preschool classrooms, and using camp songs to wrangle sixth-graders during their week’s stay with the Multnomah County Outdoor School program.

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