Social Networks and Stroke Recovery

February 6, 2015

Amar Dhand, MD, DPhil, assistant professor in the Department of Neurology in the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is working with Douglas Luke, PhD, professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and director of the Center for Public Health Systems Science, on a new project to explore the social aspects of stroke recovery.

Past research has shown that social isolation is associated with poor recovery in stroke patients, while increased social support and community engagement is associated with improved recovery. Yet the multiple social support interventions that have been tried and tested have failed to improve outcomes for stroke patients and their caregivers.

To study these interactions, Dhand and Luke, in conjunction with other School of Medicine researchers Jin-Moo Lee and Catherine Lang, are using a novel method of data analysis: social network analysis. Combining traditional surveys with innovative data collection tools such as body-worn cameras, the researchers will determine a patient’s social network structure and how it changes during recovery. The body cameras will be used to record a steady stream of images from a first-person perspective that allows direct, objective and accurate measurements of social interactions in the wearer’s everyday life. The first of its kind in stroke research, this study will work to validate these methods through three aims:

  • to determine changes in social network structure after stroke of varying severity;
  • to assess the predictive value of social network variables at stroke onset on stroke outcomes; and,
  • to determine the factors that mediate the relationship between social networks and stroke outcomes.

According to Dr. Dhand, “This is the first time that the social life of a stroke patient may be directly and objectively measured. This not only opens up a new line of inquiry, but also has the potential to enhance stroke recovery by harnessing social network analysis.”

Diagram of networks and stroke recovery
This diagram shows the networks of 22 patients. The patient is at the 12:00 position; the red lines indicate strong ties, and black ties indicate weak ties. This image highlights the need to reimagine patients not as isolated individuals, but as persons embedded inside a social structure.

This project was funded by the American Heart Association and the Clinical and Translational Funding Program supported by Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation and Washington University Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences.