Pioneering computers offer fresh hope for speech disorder | Action Medical Research

Pioneering computers offer fresh hope for speech disorder

1 June 2001
Imagine living in a world where you can’t communicate effectively with your loved ones - where you find it difficult to make your speech clear and are often completely misunderstood? Distressing and frustrating, dysarthria is a speech disorder that results from conditions such as progressive neurological disease, cerebral palsy, head injury or stroke and affects 264,000 people in the UK at any one time. Fortunately, improvements in speech patterns can be made with persistent and intensive practice. But without sufficient supervision and encouragement, progress can be slow. Leading medical research charity, Action Research, has now funded an exciting three-year project in which state-of-the-art computers could offer fresh hope. The national charity, which is committed to helping children, adults and the elderly overcome disease and disability, has awarded almost £110,000 to a team of researchers in both Bristol and Sheffield. Dr Brian Petheram, an information specialist at the Speech and Language Research Unit, Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, and the University of the West of England, says the pioneering computer software can help patients reduce the rate of their speech, making them more easily understood. Dysarthria is a neuromuscular deficit where the muscles controlling vocal communication become weak, making speech indistinct or unintelligible due to changes in articulation, loudness, vocal quality or volume and speed of delivery. It can vary in severity, from slight slurring of speech to complete inactivity. As part of their treatment, speech and language therapists assist patients with various speech exercises. But therapists are unable to supervise sufficient sessions to be fully effective, meaning patients must also practise at home. This requires heaps of self-discipline for the patient, who doesn’t gain the feedback the therapist can provide. The research team - which also includes Professor Pam Enderby, of the Community Sciences Centre, Northern General Hospital, Sheffield - is now hoping that computer interaction will provide a boost. Dr Petheram adds: ‘Computers can provide features that give clear instructions, tasks that mimic real-life speaking situations and feedback on progress. Used independently at home, they can make a considerable contribution to the effectiveness of a therapist’s initial input. ‘Furthermore, it is expected that patients who have no previous experience of using a computer, will be able to acquire a new skill at a time when many of their lifelong skills are threatened, thereby increasing their confidence.’ The grant includes the full-time salary of research speech and language therapist, Corinne Dobinson, who will be based at the Speech and Language Therapy Research Unit and will work closely with the software design and evaluation trials. She says: ‘Repetitive practice of speech exercises can be tiring and boring if done alone, and they can sometimes be far removed from every day life. Computers can help with motivation, empowering the patient and keeping the therapy interesting.’ Emphasising that the tool will be used to enhance the therapist’s work and not replace it, Corinne adds that the software will provide the patient with a number of speaking tasks during which the patient will slow down his/her speech to a set target. Corinne, who will be presenting her work at the fourth International Speech Motor Conference in Holland in June, says: ‘Dysarthria can be extremely debilitating, and it’s important that patients feel they can do something to help improve their communication. This is a very exciting project and, in time, we hope the system will be introduced into mainstream speech and language therapy.’ Professor Enderby concludes: ‘Trying to understand a person with disordered speech is tiring and stressful for friends and relatives. Methods that improve intelligibility can assist relationships and the quality of life for all involved.’ Action Research is dedicated to helping overcome disease and disability for children, families and the elderly across the UK. The charity’s Touching Lives Campaign aims to raise £2m for vital medical research and more details can be found at For further information and interviews, please contact Nicole Duckworth in the Action Research press office on 01403 327403 Fax: 01403 210541, or email ISDN facilities are available.
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