Parkinson Voice Project grant aids SPEAK OUT! at Northeastern

$280K, five-year award supports free speech therapy center

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by Mary Chapman |

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The Parkinson Voice Project (PVP)’s SPEAK OUT! Therapy & Research Center at Northeastern University will receive a $280,000 PVP grant for training, services, equipment, and supplies over the next five years.

The four-week program, running at the university’s Speech-Language and Hearing Center for more than two years, gives Parkinson’s disease patients across Massachusetts free access to therapy either in-person at the campus and via online sessions.

Due to Parkinson’s motor symptoms, some 90% of patients are likely to develop problems with speech and swallowing. Without treatment and therapy, life-threatening swallowing complications can occur.

Between 70% to 80% of patients also experience voice changes that are noticeable to others. For about 55%, changes in articulation can frustrate day-to-day verbal communication.

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Parkinson Voice Project aims to bring SPEAK OUT! to every US state

Such changes can be delayed or mitigated with early treatment, said Elizabeth Martin, an assistant clinical professor at Northeastern who collaborates with SPEAK OUT! faculty.

“People with Parkinson’s report that others often ask them to repeat themselves and that they are frequently not being heard and understood,” Martin said in a university press release. “Conversational partners then tend to avoid interacting with them. It affects their quality of life, and there’s research out there showing the social isolation that takes place with people when they have challenges with communication.”

Parkinson Voice Project launched its SPEAK OUT! program in 2010, and supported the Northeastern center’s opening in 2021. To help patients speak “with intent,” the program combines individual speech therapy, daily home practice, and speech and singing groups with educational tools and regular evaluations of patients’ progress.

Those who have continued with the PVP protocol have maintained benefits for more than a decade, the nonprofit group reported. Late last year, the organization said it hoped to establish a Parkinson’s Voice Project program in every state. Northeastern is one of 16 U.S. universities to run a Therapy & Research Center at no charge to patients, and it also provides clinical training in specialized speech therapy to graduate students.

While Parkinson’s patients in Massachusetts can receive speech therapy at other places, many charge for services or offer no online session option. People taking part in Northeastern’s program also have opportunities to contribute to research.

“We have no barriers,” said Martin, who served as co-lead for the PVP grant. “We don’t charge for the program, and everyone will get the same treatment no matter what.”

Rob Jacobson, living with Parkinson’s for more than 15 years and the first graduate of Northeastern’s program, said his speech has noticeably improved.

“It’s been really helpful,” Jacobson said of the program. “I’m aware that my voice can change over time, but my friends tell me they can understand me much better now.”

Parkinson’s is thought to affect more than 1 million U.S. residents.