Giving Voice to People with Parkinson’s disease

Detecting markers of communicative impairments in Parkinson’s Disease: a study of perception and expressiveness deficits and their neuroanatomical correlates

Marcelo da Silva Vieira
PhD Student
McGill University
Graduate Student Award
$20,000 over 2 years

A soft, whispery, or monotone voice is often the hallmark of someone with Parkinson’s disease. These difficulties can sometimes lead to misunderstanding because people are unable to convey the meaning or expression they want to communicate.

At McGill University, linguist Marcelo da Silva Vieira, a PhD student, is investigating whether people with Parkinson’s can independently adjust the pitch and the intensity, or loudness, of their voice.

“We know that these two things, pitch and loudness, go together, but at some point, we need to manipulate them separately,” Vieira explains.

“We’re trying to understand if people with Parkinson’s disease can manipulate these cues separately or they can use them properly to convey meaning.”

The stiffness and rigidity Parkinson’s produces, particularly of the larynx muscles, make it difficult for people to control their air flow, and affects both pitch and loudness, he says.

Vieira will assess these communication issues by having volunteers with Parkinson’s disease read texts. He’ll calculate the pitch and intensity of their voices and the correlation between them, as well as how this relates to their ability to control their larynx muscles. He’ll then compare those measurements against those of people without Parkinson’s disease who read the same texts.

Using Magnetic Resource Imaging, Vieira will also scan the volunteers’ brains to pinpoint whether regions associated with speech are damaged by Parkinson’s.

Vieira is also studying whether people with Parkinson’s can interpret ambiguous sounds, and attribute it to one of two categories, like deciding if a sound is a “ba” or a “da.” Not being able to categorize these sounds may hamper people from understanding accented speech or adapting to noisy environments, he says.

He plans to develop a statistical model to predict who is likely to have difficulty with their speech and speech perception.

“Our main objective is to understand the difficulties in communication in Parkinson’s disease,” he says.

Vieira hopes establishing the source of people’s difficulties and knowing the affected regions of the brain will lead to further research and better treatment.

“With therapy or other mechanisms, we can improve the ability to convey the right meaning through their voices and this might prevent &298B;social&298C; isolation,” he says.

Vieira, who grew up in Belo Horizonte in Brazil, has long been fascinated by the interface between the brain and language. He wants to find clinical treatments, driven in part by his experience with an uncle who had Parkinson-like symptoms, as well as Alzheimer’s disease.

How your support made this research project possible

Vieira grew up in a poor family in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Research grants like this one are critically important to allow him to pursue his degree and conduct this research at one of Canada’s best universities, he says.

“Speech perception in Parkinson’s disease is not well understood,” he says.

Being able to conduct this research is not only important from an academic perspective.

“To have this grant to conduct this project is important for the Parkinson’s community. Speech perception in Parkinson’s is under-studied.”

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