Think about how people talk to each other over lunch at a busy diner, or on their cellphones in a crowded public area. That’s called the Lombard Effect - the way people, without even thinking about it, adjust their voices to be heard and understood in noisy environments.
A few years ago, Purdue University speech scientist Jessica Huber had the idea that the same effect could have applications in addressing speech disorders, particularly those associated with Parkinson’s disease.
As many as 90 percent of the estimated 1 million Americans with Parkinson’s disease experience hypokinetic dysarthria, a series of changes to speech that can include a reduction in the volume and clarity of their voice and changes in the speed at which they talk. Many of them, as a result, turn to speech therapy.
The idea of using the Lombard Effect to help these patients has been around for years, and one company has even developed an app for PD patients that uses it. But Huber has taken the idea and turned it into a device that’s being commercialized at the Purdue Biomedical Technology Incubator with the hope of helping PD patients improve their speech without training or behavior modifications.
The SpeechVive device, which sits in the ear and looks similar to a Bluetooth headset or a kind of hearing aid, is activated by an accelerometer that touches the area behind the ear. Vibrations that occur when people talk trigger the start of gentle background noise that sounds similar to people talking in a crowded restaurant. That, in turn, causes the person wearing it to involuntarily increase the volume and clarity of their speech.
In an initial clinical study in 38 Parkinson’s disease patients, all of them experienced improved speech by talking louder, articulating better or normalizing their speech rate when wearing a prototype of the device, said Steve Mogensen, managing director at the Purdue BTI.
Since then, a team at the incubator has worked with an industrial design firm to take that prototype and create a more commercial-ready device (as shown in the photo above). Now, Mogensen said, they’re in the process of validating all of the technology in another study being conducted at Purdue, James Madison University and the University of Florida.
The next step, he said, is manufacturing. SpeechVive is a Class I medical device exempt from 501(k) clearance, so there won’t be any holdups there. Mogensen said a contract manufacturer is in place to produce the first 500 devices, which could be ready by this summer.
Early work on the project, before it was brought to Purdue BTI, was funded mostly through grants. The incubator works with faculty to provide financial, development and business assistance in bringing intellectual property from Purdue to the commercial market.
[Photo from Purdue BTI]