Video: A Missed Metaphor

Senior Geena Ianni finds an overlooked language deficit in some brain injury survivors.
May 2013

Imagine that your friend told you his heart had been broken, and you thought he needed a cardiologist.

People who experience a stroke or other brain injury frequently suffer some level of aphasia, difficulty producing language or understanding speech. The extent of the damage is assessed using a variety of tests, one of the most popular being the Western Aphasia Battery, or WAB. However, says College senior Geena Ianni, these measurements only test comprehension of literal language (“The day was cold.”), not of the metaphorical language prevalent in our everyday communications (“The trail was cold.”).



For her honors thesis in the Biological Basis of Behavior program, Ianni worked with members of the lab of Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, to design a test to measure the metaphor comprehension of brain-injured patients. She discovered that over 37 percent of the group they tested did have trouble comprehending metaphors.

“Six patients out of 16 had some selective metaphor deficit, and all of those six had scored above 90 out of 100 on the WAB,” says Ianni. “The cutoff for ‘normal’ language comprehension is 93.8, so these patients would have been classified as only having a very mild deficit under the WAB.” 

Along with opening a new front for testing and treating victims of brain injury, Ianni’s work also has implications for brain mapping. Eventually she and others will be able to use data like this to determine the brain regions involved in understanding metaphor.

After graduation this year, Ianni will conduct research in a post-baccalaureate position at the National Institutes of Health, and plans eventually to earn an M.D./Ph.D. “The chance to conduct clinical research as an undergraduate is hard to come by,” she says. “This was a unique opportunity.”