Virginia Tech College of Engineering researcher is seeking a new way to help those who are unable to speak to find their voice. 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 (http://www.me.vt.edu/people/faculty/leonessa.html) 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 (http://www.me.vt.edu/), 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.
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.
The concept of electrical stimulation on muscles is decades old, and is regularly used on legs and arms to prevent muscle atrophy. If the brain can no longer send electrical impulses to move a limb, the muscles and nerves can basically die off from disuse. Therefore, doctors use an external electrical appendage placed on the exterior skin to provide a small electrical shock that can cause the muscle to contract. The practice exercises the muscles, and therefore can save the leg or arm.
Leonessa said that applying the same method to vocal f
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