Parkinson's disease sufferers typically face a long, difficult battle against the disorder's degenerative effects on their motor skills and speech. While many scientists are studying the potential for drugs, surgery and exercise to slow the disease's impact on the central nervous system—including tremors, stiff muscles and impaired movement—one team of researchers is experimenting with technology designed to help Parkinson's sufferers fend off voice and speech problems.

Parkinson's can leave its victims afflicted with speech that tends to be soft, hoarse and monotonous, particularly during the disease's later stages. Jessica Huber, an associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., is in the early stages of developing a device that could help Parkinson's sufferers articulate their thoughts more audibly by exploiting the Lombard effect, a reflex in which people automatically speak louder in the presence of background sound (for example, at a sporting event, party or restaurant).

Huber has created device that includes an earpiece that automatically plays ambient noise, mimicking the din of conversation typically found in a restaurant, whenever a person attempts to speak (this is detected by a sensor placed on the neck). A mask and sensors in elastic bands placed around the rib cage precisely record respiratory, laryngeal and articulatory data as the subject speaks.

Thus far, six patients have worn the portable system for eight weeks. Data collected showed the system effectively prompts Parkinson's patients to speak louder and more clearly, according to Huber. "Ordinarily, when I asked [patients] to be twice as loud, they would say they couldn't," she said in a statement. "They couldn't speak 10 decibels louder, but when I turned on the babble noise, they spoke over 10 decibels louder."

Huber is hoping that her device will be more effective than another speech therapy program known as the Lee Silverman voice treatment program, which trains patients to speak louder in one-hour sessions four days a week for a month. Huber's concern is that, while some patients succeed with this approach, others (particularly those with later stages of the disease who have some cognitive decline) are unable to carry what they've learned during therapy sessions into actual conversations outside the doctor's office. It's not yet clear, however, whether patients will continue to speak louder when not wearing Huber's device.

If all goes well, Huber and her colleagues plan to further test their technology on patients at the Rehabilitation Institute of Indianapolis.

Image of Jessica Huber, left, an associate professor in Purdue's Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences, and graduate student Meghan Moran as they demonstrate technology designed to help Parkinson's patients overcome the tendency to speak too quietly © Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock