Project seeking to enhance patients’ speech awarded 5-year NIH grant

Researchers to develop ways to boost conversational abilities in Parkinson's

Patricia Inácio, PhD avatar

by Patricia Inácio, PhD |

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A research project to help enhance communication for individuals with Parkinson’s disease has been awarded a multimillion-dollar grant.

The five-year grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was given to a team of researchers led by Stephanie Borrie, PhD, associate professor of communicative disorders and director of the Human Interaction Lab at Utah State University (USU).

Speech difficulties, from an unusually quiet voice to poor articulation and a monotonous rhythm, are among the earliest and most common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

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Project to analyze hundreds of conversations between patients and others

However, “despite the fact that conversation is challenging for people with Parkinson’s disease, we really don’t have a lot of research on what is going on and how to improve it,” Borrie said in a university press release. “We want to help people with Parkinson’s disease feel more confident, heard and engaged in their everyday interactions.”

The team plans to analyze hundreds of conversations, observing interactions between participants and their loved ones, as well as with strangers. Additionally, the study will encompass conversations with varying goals, such as problem-solving and relationship-building.

A conversation is a dynamic and deeply cooperative joint activity, Borrie noted. As such, to pinpoint the factors impairing its dynamic flow, the researchers will analyze behaviors and patterns of Parkinson’s patients and their conversational partners.

“Good conversation is co-created by both partners,” Borrie said. “In order to effectively address conversation, we need to look at the system, not just the person with Parkinson’s disease.”

We want to help people with Parkinson’s disease feel more confident, heard and engaged in their everyday interactions.

The project is conducted in collaboration with researchers specializing in speech science, signal processing, and computational modeling. Collaborators include Tyson Barrett, PhD, a research assistant professor at USU, along with Julie Liss, PhD, and Visar Berisha, PhD, both at Arizona State University.

Ultimately, the team’s objectives are to gain insights into the barriers and facilitators of communication for people diagnosed with Parkinson’s and develop evidence-based interventions to enhance their conversational abilities.

“And who knows,” Borrie added, “maybe we’ll uncover some surprising insights about how we could all have better conversations along the way.”