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Tongue Twisters: Cross-Campus Researchers Team Up to Break Down Speech Barriers

“Rabbit” or “wabbit.” The sound of a single consonant may not seem like much, but it can mean the difference between confidence and shame, academic success and failure, and even employment and unemployment, according to researchers.

Correcting that simple-sounding speech sound disorder is complicated business. It requires shifting well-established motor learning and motor speech components in the brain and the tongue, tasks that pose daunting cognitive challenges.

It requires developing and applying diagnostic tools and procedures that cross disciplinary boundaries, linking biomedical engineering, psychology and communication sciences and disorders.

In other words, it requires a silo-busting research team eager to work across colleges and disciplines to solve a complex problem—like the team recently funded to do just that, thanks to $100,000 from the University of Cincinnati Office of Research.

Lead researchers for the project are:

  • Suzanne Boyce, PhD, Professor and Research Director of the UC Difficult Sounds Clinic in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Allied Health Science
  • T. Douglas Mast, PhD, Associate Professor and Program Chair of Biomedical Engineering in the Department of Biomedical, Chemical and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering and Applied Science with a secondary appointment in Department of Internal Medicine in the College of Medicine
  • Michael A. Riley, PhD, Professor and Director of the Center for Cognition, Action and Perception in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

They represent one of three teams funded this past year as part of the Office of Research’s nascent Strategic Collaborative Research Grant program, which launched this year.

Complex problem, simple goal

Up to 10 percent of people in the U.S. are affected by some type of communication disorder, and costs for therapy and treatment already amount to nearly $200 billion every year.

Though the grant-winning speech sound disorder research itself is complex, the UC collaborative project’s goal is straightforward: find a simple, effective way to help people improve their speech motor performance. Put simply: The researchers want to develop a feedback system that turns ultrasound images of the complex motions of the tongue—where even small adjustments can begin to turn a “w” into an “r”—into simple shapes. Those simple shapes then become attainable “targets” for people with speech sound disorders to mimic as they use the ultrasound as their guide to adjust their pronunciations.

“The University of Cincinnati is excited to support this project for a couple of key reasons,” said Pat Limbach, PhD, vice president of research at the University of Cincinnati, Chemistry professor and Ohio Eminent Scholar. “First, we want to recognize our top researchers who want and need to work across disciplines and colleges to find new answers to persistent problems that keep people from reaching their full potential. Second, this type of research enables our experts to develop technical innovations that we know can be applied to more than a single problem.”

Researchers aim to develop a speech therapy game changer, with results that would benefit:

  • English language learners
  • Children who are hard of hearing
  • People who stutter
  • People with swallowing disorders

Benefits of Collaboration

Each researcher plays a specific role in the project, with Boyce, a clinically trained linguist, leading the data collection; Riley, an experimental psychologist, providing expertise in sensorimotor control and learning; and Mast, a biomedical engineer, designing the ultrasound image processing methods and software for tongue-motion tracking.

Together, they have committed to training future researchers to work as they do, across disciplinary divides. Doctoral and graduate students from each of the lead researchers’ programs will meet regularly to cross-train, take part in clinical observations and eventually present findings.

In addition, the researchers noted that their work has broader implications for advances in disabilities engineering (an area funded by the National Science Foundation) and for producing or eliminating accents or learning particularly difficult-to-pronounce sounds in foreign languages (an area with funding potential from the Department of Defense).

By Elissa Yancey
Photo courtesy University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center

Oct 31, 2017