Voice-assisted Devices May Help Patients to Speak More Clearly

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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speech and Parkinson's


People with Parkinson’s disease who use voice-assisted technologies (VATs) — software programs that respond to voice commands, like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri — may find that they help to improve their speech by prodding them to practice speaking more clearly, a study based on an online patient survey indicates.

“By presenting our initial findings of how voice-assisted technologies can support speech and language therapy outcomes for people with Parkinson’s disease, we hope that we can encourage the future use of voice-assisted technologies by speech and language therapists in clinical settings to support patients, Roisin McNaney, PhD, a senior lecturer at Monash University and a study co-author, said in a press release.

The study, “Attitudes Toward the Use of Voice-Assisted Technologies Among People With Parkinson Disease: Findings From a Web-Based Survey,” was published in JMIR Publications.

Most people with Parkinson’s will experience speech difficulties, such as talking abnormally softly or slowly. Speech therapy can help with these issues, but such therapies are not accessible to everyone, and getting results can require a lot of practice at home. In that context, VATs — which require a person to speak clearly enough to be understood by the software — may be of help to patients with speech problems.

Researchers conducted an online survey of 290 Parkinson’s patients living in the U.K. Among the respondents, 40% were female, most were between the ages of 55 and 74, and nearly all had been living with Parkinson’s for at least a year (mean of 6.35 years since diagnosis).

About two-thirds of survey respondents, 66.9% or 194 people, reported speaking difficulties. In fact, speech problems were the third most frequently reported Parkinson’s symptom, behind slow movements and difficulty writing.

The survey asked respondents several questions about their level of comfort with VAT and other technologies. Generally, the respondents reported high levels of technological comfort, and most had no major concerns about VAT devices in regards to privacy.

“This level of basic digital skills, technology familiarity, usage, and ownership indicate a community in which the majority are actively embracing technology,” the researchers wrote. They noted that, since the survey was administered online, this patient group may be more technologically savvy than the overall Parkinson’s population, which was a limitation of this study.

A total of 166 participants reported owning and using a VAT device. Of these people, nearly a third said that their device helped them manage aspects of Parkinson’s disease; for example, many said that having speech-to-text features made it easier to cope with symptoms like tremor that can make typing challenging.

Of the 166 participants who owned a VAT device, 108 had experienced speech difficulties. Among these patients, about a quarter (25.3%) reported that, with continued usage, their VAT device asked them to repeat themselves less.

“This suggests that out-of-the-box VAT use may actually improve speech,” the researchers wrote. However, they noted that other factors, such as increased familiarity with the technology, might also account for these differences, saying that this finding “warrants further research.”

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“It is important to recognize that there may be a misconception that VAT is not an option for people with Parkinson disease who experience speech changes, yet VAT offers some participants the encouragement to speak slower and louder,” the team wrote. “Perhaps, the opportunity for unlimited attempts, with clear indicators of success and the absence of frustration from a communication partner, makes this technology an attractive option.”

Also of note, 13.9% of respondents with speech difficulties who used a VAT device reported being more confident about their speech after using the device. However, 9.3% reported being less confident after the VAT.

“It is not certain that this decline in confidence is a direct result of VAT rather than a progression of PD. However, this result highlights the possibility that repeated unsuccessful engagement with VAT may be detrimental to confidence and that use by people with Parkinson disease should be monitored, particularly in the early stages of use,” the researchers wrote.

Collectively, the team said that these findings highlight a need for further research into how VAT devices and similar technologies might benefit people with Parkinson’s.

“Voice-assisted technologies now have the capability to support future therapies and act as useful tools for speech and language therapists, with the added benefit of already being present in the patient’s home,” said Orla Duffy, a lecturer at Ulster University and study co-author.

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