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NEWS
Researcher Seeks Way To Help Those Unable To Speak
March 14, 2011

A Virginia Tech College of Engineering researcher is seeking a new way to help those who are unable to speak to find their voice.


Alexander Leonessa

But, this isn’t “The King’s Speech,” the Academy Award-winning film about a British royal undergoing speech therapy to battle a stammer. Instead, Alexander Leonessa wants to help bring back the voice of stroke patients and others who have suffered paralysis of the vocal folds, through electrical stimulation. Leonessa, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is developing a small device that could use functional electrical stimulation on the paralyzed vocal folds of stroke patients or others who have lost the ability to talk, or even swallow and breathe properly. “The device has the potential of improving the quality of life for patients with vocal paralysis, or neuromuscular disabilities, including traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s disease,” he said.

Prof. Leonessa won a $480,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award for this research effort. The CAREER grant is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award, given to creative junior faculty likely considered to become academic leaders of the future.

During the five-year study, Prof. Leonessa and his graduate student research team will work with doctors at the Center for Voice and Swallowing Disorders, part of Wake Forrest University’s Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina. There, patients with paralyzed vocal folds will undergo electrical stimulation tests to see if small shocks can reinvigorate their ability to talk through forced contraction.

Prof. Leonessa plans to develop a portable, noninvasive device that can be adjusted to each patient. The device itself would be no larger than an iPod, clipped to the belt, and have small wires leading to a patch over the patient’s throat. An Atlanta-based tech company will help develop the device, which will come later in the five-year study if the use of electrical stimulation on the vocal folds holds promise for muscle and nerve rejuvenation.


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