New Discovery May Help Restore Speech in People With Cerebral Palsy

Some people with cerebral palsy are unable to speak or struggle to speak clearly. New technology may one day help them effectively communicate with others by turning the signals in their brains into synthesized speech.

Cerebral palsy impacts a person’s ability to control their muscles, including those required for speech. One in 4 children with cerebral palsy has difficulty speaking or cannot speak at all. However, a new study may have found a way to improve speech therapy for cerebral palsy and possibly give them back the ability to talk.

While the idea of using technology to restore speech isn’t new, the current methods fall well below the average speed of speech. For example, one form requires people to spell words using their eyes to control a cursor and write out the words. This method allows them to communicate at a rate of 8-10 words per minute. Most people speak 120-150 words per minute.

Decoding Brain-Speech Connections

Previous studies demonstrated that the brain turns thoughts into speech by focusing on the movements of people’s lips, tongue and jaw. New research by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) builds on the groundwork the other studies laid.

The recent study recorded brain signals in the speech-center of people who could speak as they read different texts. Researchers examined how brain signals controlled the movements of the person’s lips, throat and tongue.

With this information, the researchers created virtual vocal tracts for the participants. When the participants read the same texts a second time, the researchers produced synthesized speech from the participants’ brain waves.

“We were shocked when we first heard the results — we couldn’t believe our ears. It was incredibly exciting that a lot of the aspects of real speech were present in the output from the synthesizer,” said Josh Chartier, the study’s co-author and a doctoral student at UCSF.

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done for this technology to translate thoughts to speech in real-time. For instance, the text sometimes slurs together making parts of it indecipherable.

The study results found that listeners were able to understand the sentences 43% of the time if they were given a small group of words to choose from. When the listeners didn’t hear the words correctly, they often thought it was a similar word. Chartier gave the example that someone heard the word “rodent” when it was actually “rabbit.”

Speech Translation May Help People With Cerebral Palsy

Right now, this technology is only being tested on individuals without speech impairments. Edward Chang, another co-author of the study and a neurosurgeon at UCSF, explained that it might be challenging to use the technology on individuals who cannot speak, especially if the reason they can’t talk is a movement disorder like cerebral palsy.

Despite this challenge, researchers are not willing to give up. They want their product to be available for clinical trials one day. They hope to help everyone gain the ability to communicate with one another in real-time speech.

Speech Therapy for Cerebral Palsy

While the technology to translate thoughts into speech is not yet available, there are other resources for individuals with speech impairments, including speech therapy for cerebral palsy and speech generating devices:

  • Speech Therapy: Speech therapy and other forms of treatment help children with cerebral palsy learn how to slow their rate of speech down, when to pause in a sentence or word, make the correct sounds or sustain an even tone.
  • Speech Generating Devices: Certain devices work with the communication strategies the child is already using. For example, these devices can help decode facial expressions, sounds and gestures.

If your child has cerebral palsy, you may be eligible for financial compensation to cover the costs of therapies and access some of the latest therapeutic interventions that help kids with cerebral palsy. Contact the Birth Injury Justice Center today to learn more about your legal options.


View 5 References
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  2. Weintraub, K. (2019, April 24). Scientists take a step toward decoding speech from the brain. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-take-a-step-toward-decoding-speech-from-the-brain/
  3. How does cerebral palsy affect people? (n.d.) Retrieved from https://research.cerebralpalsy.org.au/what-is-cerebral-palsy/how-cerebral-palsy-affects-people/
  4. Speech generating devices for children with cerebral palsy. (2016). Retrieved from https://cerebralpalsy.org.au/our-research/about-cerebral-palsy/interventions-and-therapies/speech-generating-devices-for-children-with-cerebral-palsy/#1465425032594-774f9d32-4ae6
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