What is translational research?
One component of the strategic initiatives put forth by the National Institutes of Health (the NIH Roadmap) is an emphasis on translational research. The stated goal of this new focus is to provide cutting-edge treatment more quickly and efficiently to patients. Translational research refers to the process of moving research from the laboratory to the clinical setting. Translational research also involves clinicians making their own observations about the nature and progression of disorders that in turn stimulate basic investigations. For instance, basic research into the way light waves function and the magnetic properties of iron in the blood have led to imaging techniques such as X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging, which are now a standard part of medical practice. This initiative applies to behavioral and medical sciences, although the need for it may be more obvious in the area of biomedical sciences.
In some areas of our field, translating the basic research being conducted in diverse areas into a package that can be applied at the clinical level is not a straightforward process. For instance, the development of the cochlear implant required that researchers integrate findings from electrical engineering, physiology, and acoustics (Djourno & Eyries, 1957; Luxford & Brackman, 1985). Research in these three areas was combined when the Bionic Ear was developed. However, this was not without difficulty. Dr. Graeme Clark, a pioneer in the field, described some of the difficulties associated with the development of the first cochlear implant in an interview in which he stated that they faced "setbacks because the prototype devices started to malfunction due to design difficulties that could only really be rectified by expertise in industry." In order to provide continued improvement in this area, researchers must be able to master both basic and clinical research techniques and apply them in a cross-disciplinary fashion.
In other areas of our field, the need for translation may be less obvious but still crucial. For instance, basic research has shown us that typically developing children are more likely to map a verb meaning if they are presented with multiple examples of the verb with the same agents than if they are presented with the same number of examples of the verb using different agents. The researchers hypothesize that this is because children are better able to attend to the actions once the novelty of the objects and actors has faded (Maguire, 2006).
The clinical applications of this finding seem to be relatively straightforward. It may be beneficial to teach verbs to children with language impairment in a similar way. That is, children with language impairment may learn verbs better by hearing the verb jumping paired with a single example of someone jumping many times and only later hearing the verb jumping in the context of many different people jumping. Although this application seems obvious, children with language impairment presumably are having some difficulty learning language, and it is possible that a style of teaching like this would not actually benefit them at all. Translational research would ask the question "Do children with language impairment benefit in the same way from altered input that typically developing children do?" and would explore the mechanisms by which children with language impairment learn verbs. At the same time, the emphasis in translational research is on moving toward a clinical application: How can I use this information to provide more effective therapies?
Translational research is fundamentally concerned with bridging the gap between what happens in the laboratory and what happens in the clinical setting. It is a form of reengineering the clinical research process. As researchers and clinicians in the area of communication sciences and disorders, we may be in an especially strong position to see the potential applications of basic research. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) sponsored a workshop on Translational Research in Hearing and Balance on April 27-28, 2004, in Bethesda, Maryland. The goal was to discuss translational research as related to hearing and balance, to identify barriers to and opportunities in translational research, and to articulate activities that could be initiated by NIDCD in order to increase the translation of scientific accomplishments from the laboratory to the research clinic and beyond to impact clinical practice and public health.
- Djourno, A., & Eyries, C. (1957). Prothese auditive par excitation electrique a distance du nerf sensoriel a l'aide dun bobinage inclus a demeure. Presse Med, 35, 14-17.
- Luxford, W.M., & Brackman, D.E. (1985). The history of cochlear implants. In R. Gray (Ed.) Cochlear implants (pp. 1-26). San Diego, CA: College-Hill Press.
- Maguire, M. J. (2006, November). Getting more action: Fewer exemplars facilitate children's verb extensions. Paper presented at the 31st Annual Boston University Child Language Development Conference, Boston.
This article first appeared in the December 2006 issue of Access Academics and Research.