Yana Yunusova,
Associate Professor, University of Toronto;
Adjunct Scientist, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute
Psychosocial Pilot Project Grant: $45,000

The role of visual feedback in speech rehabilitation in patients with Parkinson’s disease

The soft, whispery voice many people with Parkinson’s disease develop is one of the hallmarks of the disease. While dopamine replacement medication effectively treats many other movement-related symptoms of Parkinson’s, it can actually worsen speech problems.

At the University of Toronto and Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, Yana Yunusova is developing interactive computer games to help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their speech.

“What we want to create is a way to visualize tongue movements, so patients learn to control them while they speak, by making them larger in size, to improve speech quality,” says Yunusova, an associate professor and a speech language pathologist.

With a sensor attached to the tongue, the games will involve creating a wave pattern based on patients’ typical rate and volume of speech. The pattern will be converted to a visual image that people can manipulate on the screen. Through game scenarios, people will learn to move and change the images, by making their tongue movements larger.

Currently, most rehabilitation methods for people with Parkinson’s disease focus on speaking louder, rather than on articulation problems. Yunusova believes if people have the visual cues provided through the computer games, it will be easier for them to practise larger tongue movements – which will help them produce clearer sounds. Being able to articulate more clearly will improve people’s quality of life.

“If we improve people’s abilities or help them to maintain their speaking abilities for longer intervals of time, they’re better able to talk to family members and participate in social circles,” says Yunusova.

As a native of Russia, Yunusova was drawn to speech pathology because she understands the frustration people who have trouble making themselves understood experience.

“When I moved to North America, I had communication deficits myself. I hardly spoke English and I can relate, in some meaningful way, to individuals who have communication impairments,” she says.
She enjoys working with people with Parkinson’s disease because of the life experiences they bring to the table, she says. “You don’t have to convince them that they need help. I like their style,” she says.