Enriching communicative environments: Leveraging advances in neuroplasticity for improving outcomes in neurogenic communication disorders

Julie A. Hengst, Melissa C. Duff, Theresa A. Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Purpose: Research manipulating the complexity of housing environments for healthy and brain-damaged animals has offered strong, well-replicated evidence for the positive impacts in animal models of enriched environments on neuroplasticity and behavioral outcomes across the lifespan. This article reviews foundational work on environmental enrichment from the animal literature and considers how it relates to a line of research examining rich communicative environments among adults with aphasia, amnesia, and related cognitive-communication disorders. Method: Drawing on the authors’ own research and the broader literature, this article first presents a critical review of environmental complexity from the animal literature. Building on that animal research, the second section begins by defining rich communicative environments for humans (highlighting the combined effects of complexity, voluntariness, and experiential quality). It then introduces key frameworks for analyzing and designing rich communicative environments: distributed communication and functional systems along with sociocultural theories of learning and development in humans that support them. The final section provides an overview of Hengst’s and Duff’s basic and translational research, which has been designed to exploit the insights of sociocultural theories and research on environmental complexity. In particular, this research has aimed to enrich communicative interactions in clinical settings, to trace specific communicative resources that characterize such interactions, and to marshal rich communicative environments for therapeutic goals for individuals with aphasia and amnesia. Conclusions: This article concludes by arguing that enriching and optimizing environments and experiences offers a very promising approach to rehabilitation efforts designed to enhance the reorganization of cognitive-communicative abilities after brain injury. Such interventions would require clinicians to use the principles outlined here to enrich communicative environments and to target distributed communication in functional systems (not the isolated language of individuals).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)216-229
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican journal of speech-language pathology
Issue number1S
StatePublished - Mar 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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