When Caroline Spencer was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia (FA) just before her 24th birthday, she unfortunately knew what was ahead for her. Spencer, now 31 and in her fourth year as a doctoral student in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Allied Health Sciences, was familiar with FA from her studies in neuroscience as a UC undergrad and while getting her master’s degree in speech pathology from Purdue University.
“It was pretty tough to take because, even though I knew something was wrong and the answers I’d been getting weren’t right, I didn’t want FA to be the answer,” she says.
FA is a genetic condition that affects the nervous system and causes movement problems. People with this condition develop impaired muscle coordination, gradual loss of strength and sensation in the arms and legs and impaired speech, hearing and vision.
Spencer is currently working on a National Institutes of Health fellowship grant to fund her dissertation and training in neuroimaging analysis, using data related to speech language pathology research conducted by Suzanne Boyce, PhD, professor in CSD and Spencer’s advisor. Spencer says the outcome of this project will provide further knowledge about the interaction between phonological and motor networks for speech production in children who fail to acquire all the sounds of their language
It was when she was around the age of 20 that she first went to the doctor because of problems she was having with her balance.
“I was never very athletic or coordinated, and it took me a long time to learn to ride a bike,” she says of what she now sees as her earliest symptoms. “I have two brothers and they don’t have it, and neither of my parents are symptomatic, but they are both carriers, so I’m the lucky one who got both recessive traits.”
Spencer says the last part of that sentence with a smile and quick laugh, something she does a lot during a conversation. That’s a bit unexpected coming from someone who knows that her mobility, which is already challenged, is most likely only going to become more limited in the coming years. She says she doesn’t have any other choice but to maintain a positive attitude.
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