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Press Release

New ultrasound technology aims to help children with speech problems

Two Scottish universities are to develop technology and clinical treatment methods to help children with speech sound disorders.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh (QMU) in collaboration with QMU spin-out company Articulate Instruments, will develop ultrasound technology to gain clearer and more meaningful images of the tongue inside the mouth during speech.

Speech Sound Disorders (SSDs) are the most common communication impairment in childhood, affecting 6.5% of all UK children - that's around two children in every classroom. SSDs make it difficult for people to communicate with their peers and integrate with society. Ultimately this can restrict educational attainment.

Current speech technology offers some assistance to people with these problems but is inadequate. Equipment is expensive to run or complicated to operate and therefore not widely used in clinical practice. The result is that children are not getting the help they need to improve their speech.

A recent UK Government report highlighted the need for research to improve treatment for children and young people with communication impairments. The latest project builds on a decade of research conducted by Queen Margaret University which has pioneered the use of ultrasound technology to measure movements of the tongue inside the mouth. 

This comes as communication disorders are highlighted as a key Government priority, with 2011 designated 'The National Year of Communication'.

Professor Jim Scobbie, Director of the Clinical Audiology, Speech and Language Research Centre (CASL) at QMU, explained: "Most people who have difficulty creating the correct speech sounds receive therapy which relies on their auditory skills: they must listen to their own speech sounds and then try to modify them. However, with these more traditional methods, some children struggle to improve their speech."

He continued: "With ultrasound technology people can see the movement and shape of their own tongue inside their mouth in real time and use this visual information to help them create the correct sound. In simple terms, it allows them to see where they are going wrong, change the shape of their tongue when speaking and ultimately improve the sounds that they make. Ultrasound therefore has the potential to provide powerful information about typical and disordered speech and can help speakers to modify their own incorrect tongue movements. However, although ultrasound is cheap, instant and safe, the downside is that the image is grainy and the information about what the tip of the tongue is doing can be unclear."

In collaboration with speech technologists at the University of Edinburgh, the new project will enhance the ultrasound image, making it much clearer and easier for children to understand. The image-processing software, 'Ultrax', will allow better tracking of tongue shapes and sequences of tongue movements.

Dr Joanne Cleland, Queen Margaret University’s Speech and Language Therapist on the project, explained: "Ultrax will allow children in the clinic to see their own tongues moving inside their mouth while they are speaking - a dynamic, real time 2D image!  We expect that the improved visual feedback will be extremely useful in helping children to overcome their speech disorders."

The first stage is to use an MRI scanner to capture high-definition images of adults' tongues making a variety of speech sounds. Ultrasound recordings will also be taken. Then, Dr Korin Richmond and Professor Steve Renals at the Centre for Speech Technology Research at the University of Edinburgh will combine the MRI and ultrasound images to develop a new model of the sequences of possible tongue shapes, which can be used to track a moving tongue in ultrasound images. This will in turn drive a simplified display of the tongue, similar to the lip-synched animated faces used in Hollywood movies. This real-time display will be trialled by children with and without speech disorders.

Professor Steve Renals, of the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Speech Technology Research, said: "We can use our expertise to model the complex shapes of the tongue as it moves during speech, and translate this into a clear image of what the tongue is doing, paving the way for effective speech therapy."

Dr Cleland concluded: "By the end of the project we will have developed a new visual feedback tool which will significantly improve the diagnosis and treatment of speech sound disorders. We will also know considerably more about normally developing and adult speech patterns, and how children interact with visual-feedback therapy."

The £586,000 project is being funded by the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) Healthcare Partnerships programme. The initiative began in February 2011 and will run until early 2014.


Notes to Editor

From its very inception, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh,  has focused on providing relevant education and research, addressing real-life issues to enhance the social and economic well-being of all the communities we serve.   We have expertise in health; media;  communication;  performing arts;  social sciences; and business, management and enterprise. As a small university, we aim to offer a community environment to our students in which they can fulfil their potential and where they need never feel lost in the crowd.  A commitment to social, ecological and economic sustainability underpins all our work.

For further media information please contact Lynne Russell, Press and PR Officer, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 474 0000, mob: 07711 011239.





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last modified 01/09/11 Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh EH21 6UU - Tel: +44 (0)131 474 0000
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