A medical device worn in the ear can help people with Parkinson’s speak louder and more clearly, by working on a natural reflex that aids in overcoming difficulties with speech brought on by disease progression.
Hypophonia is the tendency to speak softly, generally as a result of impaired coordination in the muscles that are used to form speech. This can develop as a symptom of Parkinson’s disease (PD), and it can make it difficult for people to engage in effective communication with those around them.
The medical device, called SpeechVive, aims to help people with hypophonia secondary to Parkinson’s by employing a fairly simple principle called the Lombard effect. Simply put, this effect is the tendency for people to speak more loudly in environments that are noisy, much like how people tend to raise their voice when speaking in a room full of talking people.
In principle, SpeechVive works by simulating a noisy environment when there is none, basically playing ‘background noise’ into the person’s ear. This prompts the Lombard effect, so the person wearing the device will speak more loudly and enunciate more clearly, allowing them to overcome their hypophonia.
The device was tested in a study published in the Journal of Communication Disorders in 2014. Of this study’s 33 people with PD-related hypophonia (all at different stages of Parkinson’s), 26 (79%) experienced significant increases in vocal intensity (i.e., volume and enunciation) while using the device.
Most participants were also able to improve the way their laryngeal and respiratory physiologic support worked. By changing the resistance to airflow through the glottis (the vocal cords and openings between them), the larynx can help increase vocal intensity.
According to a press release from Purdue University, where the technology was developed, the number of Parkinson’s patients using SpeechVive has increased substantially over the past several years.
“When people with Parkinson’s disease cannot be heard or understood, they withdraw from communication exchanges, leading to social isolation. This device makes it possible for patients to continue to communicate with their loved ones well into their disease,” said Jessica Huber, PhD, the Purdue speech-language researcher and professor who developed SpeechVive.
Huber emphasized that using this device can achieve results without the need for traditional speech therapy, which can be lengthy and require ongoing work on the part of the affected person. “Since the wearable device elicits a reflex, the patient does not need to remember to use therapy techniques to communicate in everyday life,” she said.
Huber and colleagues are working to expand access to the technology; for example, they presented it at the Purdue Institute for Integrative Neuroscience’s “Night at the Museum” event at The Field Museum in Chicago in October.
“We are working to develop additional routes for individuals to obtain the device,” said Huber, adding, “I enjoy developing and testing devices and therapies that can improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s disease.”