logoThe research focus of the Simonyan Laboratory is two-fold: identification of the central mechanisms responsible for speech production and elucidation of the pathophysiology of neurological voice and speech disorders. 
Our earlier contributions involved identification of the extensive projection system of the laryngeal motor cortex in the rhesus monkey using neuroanatomical tract tracing. Using multimodal neuroimaging, our laboratory later played a central role in i) identification of the laryngeal motocortical representation in humans; ii) defining the functional connectome of speech production, and iii) elucidation of the mechanisms of dopaminergic neurotransmission during speaking, as well as those underlying left-hemispheric lateralization of speech networks. We are currently focused on examining temporal characteristics of laryngeal motocortical activity and the modulatory role of different neurotransmitters on neural networks controlling speech production. To this end, we are developing multi-compartmental neural population models to test specific hypotheses about speech motor control, which have remained extremely challenging to address due to either invasiveness of the applied methods or technical limitations.
Our contributions to the understanding of the pathophysiology of neurological speech disorders include a comprehensive mapping of brain functional, structural and dopaminergic alterations as well as identification of neuropathological changes in spasmodic dysphonia (laryngeal dystonia) and voice tremor. We demonstrated that focal dystonia is a disorder of large-scale functional neural networks, where abnormal regional interactions may contribute to network-wide alterations. We also established that abnormal sensory discrimination thresholds in patients with focal dystonias represent a common endophenotypic trait of this disorder. We further showed that clinically and genetically distinct forms of spasmodic dysphonia can be accurately classified based on cortical sensorimotor abnormalities, the latter serving as potential objective diagnostic markers for this disorder. Our laboratory described the first spasmodic dysphonia patient with a causative DYT25 (GNAL) mutation and determined the polygenic risk of focal dystonia. Most recently, we delineated the first effective use of a novel oral medication, sodium oxybate (Xyrem®), in patients with spasmodic dysphonia and voice tremor.
The Simonyan laboratory currently uses multi-modal neuroimaging, machine learning and neural population modeling to determine and validate phenotype- and genotype-specific neural markers of dystonia as well as the endophenotypic markers of its development. We are also working on identification of the primary neural determinants of clinical response to sodium oxybate in patients with dystonia and tremor as a potential new therapeutic option. Another goal is to delineate abnormal neurotransmission in dystonia, which would ultimately help identify other novel pharmacological targets. We are applying several genetic strategies, including next-generation sequencing in dystonia families and singleton cases as well as genome-wide association studies in isolated populations, in order to identify new genes and risk factors of spasmodic dysphonia.

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Recent Publications

Central voice production and pathophysiology of spasmodic dysphonia
Niv Mor, Kristina Simonyan, and Andrew Blitzer. 2018. “Central voice production and pathophysiology of spasmodic dysphonia.” Laryngoscope, 128, 1, Pp. 177-183.Abstract
OBJECTIVE: Our ability to speak is complex, and the role of the central nervous system in controlling speech production is often overlooked in the field of otolaryngology. In this brief review, we present an integrated overview of speech production with a focus on the role of central nervous system. The role of central control of voice production is then further discussed in relation to the potential pathophysiology of spasmodic dysphonia (SD). DATA SOURCES: Peer-review articles on central laryngeal control and SD were identified from PUBMED search. Selected articles were augmented with designated relevant publications. REVIEW METHODS: Publications that discussed central and peripheral nervous system control of voice production and the central pathophysiology of laryngeal dystonia were chosen. RESULTS: Our ability to speak is regulated by specialized complex mechanisms coordinated by high-level cortical signaling, brainstem reflexes, peripheral nerves, muscles, and mucosal actions. Recent studies suggest that SD results from a primary central disturbance associated with dysfunction at our highest levels of central voice control. The efficacy of botulinum toxin in treating SD may not be limited solely to its local effect on laryngeal muscles and also may modulate the disorder at the level of the central nervous system. CONCLUSION: Future therapeutic options that target the central nervous system may help modulate the underlying disorder in SD and allow clinicians to better understand the principal pathophysiology. LEVEL OF EVIDENCE: NA.Laryngoscope, 128:177-183, 2018.
Dopamine drives left-hemispheric lateralization of neural networks during human speech
Stefan Fuertinger, Joel C Zinn, Ashwini D Sharan, Farid Hamzei-Sichani, and Kristina Simonyan. 2018. “Dopamine drives left-hemispheric lateralization of neural networks during human speech.” J Comp Neurol, 526, 5, Pp. 920-931.Abstract
Although the concept of left-hemispheric lateralization of neural processes during speech production has been known since the times of Broca, its physiological underpinnings still remain elusive. We sought to assess the modulatory influences of a major neurotransmitter, dopamine, on hemispheric lateralization during real-life speaking using a multimodal analysis of functional MRI, intracranial EEG recordings, and large-scale neural population simulations based on diffusion-weighted MRI. We demonstrate that speech-induced phasic dopamine release into the dorsal striatum and speech motor cortex exerts direct modulation of neuronal activity in these regions and drives left-hemispheric lateralization of speech production network. Dopamine-induced lateralization of functional activity and networks during speaking is not dependent on lateralization of structural nigro-striatal and nigro-motocortical pathways. Our findings provide the first mechanistic explanation for left-hemispheric lateralization of human speech that is due to left-lateralized dopaminergic modulation of brain activity and functional networks.
Cognitive performance in mid-stage Parkinson's disease: functional connectivity under chronic antiparkinson treatment
Roxana Vancea, Kristina Simonyan, Maria Petracca, Miroslaw Brys, Alessandro Di Rocco, Maria Felice Ghilardi, and Matilde Inglese. 2017. “Cognitive performance in mid-stage Parkinson's disease: functional connectivity under chronic antiparkinson treatment.” Brain Imaging Behav.Abstract
Cognitive impairment in Parkinson's disease (PD) is related to the reorganization of brain topology. Although drug challenge studies have proven how levodopa treatment can modulate functional connectivity in brain circuits, the role of chronic dopaminergic therapy on cognitive status and functional connectivity has never been investigated. We sought to characterize brain functional topology in mid-stage PD patients under chronic antiparkinson treatment and explore the presence of correlation between reorganization of brain architecture and specific cognitive deficits. We explored networks topology and functional connectivity in 16 patients with PD and 16 matched controls through a graph theoretical analysis of resting state-functional MRI data, and evaluated the relationships between network metrics and cognitive performance. PD patients showed a preserved small-world network topology but a lower clustering coefficient in comparison with healthy controls. Locally, PD patients showed lower degree of connectivity and local efficiency in many hubs corresponding to functionally relevant areas. Four disconnected subnetworks were also identified in regions responsible for executive control, sensory-motor control and planning, motor coordination and visual elaboration. Executive functions and information processing speed were directly correlated with degree of connectivity and local efficiency in frontal, parietal and occipital areas. While functional reorganization appears in both motor and cognitive areas, the clinical expression of network imbalance seems to be partially compensated by the chronic levodopa treatment with regards to the motor but not to the cognitive performance. In a context of reduced network segregation, the presence of higher local efficiency in hubs regions correlates with a better cognitive performance.
An open-label study of sodium oxybate in Spasmodic dysphonia
Anna F Rumbach, Andrew Blitzer, Steven J Frucht, and Kristina Simonyan. 2017. “An open-label study of sodium oxybate in Spasmodic dysphonia.” Laryngoscope, 127, 6, Pp. 1402-1407.Abstract
OBJECTIVES/HYPOTHESIS: Spasmodic dysphonia (SD) is a task-specific laryngeal dystonia that affects speech production. Co-occurring voice tremor (VT) often complicates the diagnosis and clinical management of SD. Treatment of SD and VT is largely limited to botulinum toxin injections into laryngeal musculature; other pharmacological options are not sufficiently developed. STUDY DESIGN: Open-label study. METHODS: We conducted an open-label study in 23 SD and 22 SD/VT patients to examine the effects of sodium oxybate (Xyrem), an oral agent with therapeutic effects similar to those of alcohol in these patients. Blinded randomized analysis of voice and speech samples assessed symptom improvement before and after drug administration. RESULTS: Sodium oxybate significantly improved voice symptoms (P = .001) primarily by reducing the number of SD-characteristic voice breaks and severity of VT. Sodium oxybate further showed a trend for improving VT symptoms (P = .03) in a subset of patients who received successful botulinum toxin injections for the management of their SD symptoms. The drug's effects were observed approximately 30 to 40 minutes after its intake and lasted about 3.5 to 4 hours. CONCLUSIONS: Our study demonstrated that sodium oxybate reduced voice symptoms in 82.2% of alcohol-responsive SD patients both with and without co-occurring VT. Our findings suggest that the therapeutic mechanism of sodium oxybate in SD and SD/VT may be linked to that of alcohol, and as such, sodium oxybate might be beneficial for alcohol-responsive SD and SD/VT patients. LEVEL OF EVIDENCE: 4 Laryngoscope, 127:1402-1407, 2017.

Latest News

Harvard Otolaryngology Spring 2018 issue

June 22, 2018
New Findings in Dystonia - Dr. Simonyan's research is highlighted in the Spring 2018 issue of Harvard Otolaryngology. 
“Continuation of [dystonia] research is vital in determining the exact causes and mechanisms of this disorder. This knowledge will be crucial for the future development of novel diagnostic procedures and advanced treatments, which will offer hope to so many people worldwide.”
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Presentations at the annual meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping 2018, Singapore

June 17, 2018
Laura de Lima Xavier, MD, presented her latest study on environmental factors for developing spasmodic dysphonia, which showed that stressors influencing the sensory feedback from the larynx and upper respiratory tract represent major risk factors and are associated with abnormal cortical sensorimotor integration.
Daniel Moyer from USC presented our collaborative study with Greg Ver Steeg, PhD, and Aram Galstyan, PhD, on the use of a novel CorEx approach for analysis of high-dimensional fMRI networks.
Click here for the posters
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