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Many speech therapists will be familiar with patients who have completely lost the ability to speak. This can occur due to traumatic brain injury or a stroke, or it could be due to something more long-term like Parkinson’s disease. Whatever the cause, it is usually irreversible.
The technological solution has so far been to use assistive devices that allow people to speak. However, these are only able to spell out words one letter at a time, often by tracking eye movements or changes in facial muscles. This is very slow and laborious, but a breakthrough has been made that could make things much easier.
A new brain interface has been created by researchers from UC San Francisco (UCSF) that can generate synthetic speech by reading signals from the brain’s speech centre. The breakthrough came as a result of the understanding that this area of the brain does not work by thinking of sounds to create, but by sending commands to the muscles in the jaw, larynx, lips and tongue in order to form words.
The new interface will work alongside a “virtual vocal tract”, which is a detailed computer simulation of these parts of the body. This, combined with the brain interface, allows subjects to produce natural-sounding synthetic speech.
Dr Edward Chang, professor of neurological surgery and member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neuroscience, said: “For the first time, this study demonstrates that we can generate entire spoken sentences based on an individual’s brain activity. This is an exhilarating proof of principle that with technology that is already within reach, we should be able to build a device that is clinically viable in patients with speech loss.”
So far, this device has only been tested in volunteers who have not lost the ability to speak. However, the researchers do not believe there will be many differences between this and using the device on people who are no longer able to speak naturally. If so, this could be a major breakthrough in speech therapy.
Written by Martin Lambert
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