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New Technology for Diagnosing Voice Disorders

What if your voice hurt your career without you knowing?

Unhealthy vocal patterns – such as using too little air or a vocal fry – may be inconsequential for someone who doesn’t speak constantly. But for a teacher who relies on their voice, the damage can end their career.

SHP researcher Maria Dietrich, PhD, studies how problematic vocal patterns can lead to vocal fatigue – or worse, lesions and muscle tension dysphonia. Last February, she received a federal R15 grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in order to research the early detection of vocal fatigue in student teachers.

For researchers like Dietrich, receiving federal grants of this nature is the goal. However, the National Institute of Health awards up to three R15 grants once every cycle, or three times a year – so this funding is competitive. Even more rare, this branch of the National Institute of Health funded Dietrich’s grant the first time she applied for it.

Before she received the NIDCD grant, Dietrich was awarded two internal grants, a Dr. Richard Wallace Faculty Incentive grant and one from MU’s Research Council. According to Dietrich, these helped her to be competitive for external funding.

“It’s a stepping stone toward even larger grants,” Dietrich said. “It gives me the money and support and infrastructure to continue this kind of research.”

With her pilot data, Dietrich was able to follow her path and research student teachers specifically. While 60 percent of teachers in the U.S. will suffer from voice disorders in their lifetimes, signs of vocal fatigue can be elusive during assessments like voice screenings and full voice diagnostic exams. This becomes dangerous for student teachers, whose frequent use of voice makes them more susceptible to developing the unhealthy vocal patterns that may lead to muscle tension dysphonia. It’s important to catch these patterns early, which is where Dietrich comes in.

Along with Dr. Matthew Page, professor of Clinical Otolaryngology in MU’s School of Medicine, and other professors and students from MU’s College of Engineering, Dietrich created a diagnostic tool that will aid experts in detecting potential voice disorders before they start to cause damage. Her collaborator from the MU Vision-Guided and Intelligent Robotics Lab has developed a new algorithm that recognizes healthy and unhealthy vocal patterns by collecting surface EMG (or sEMG) data and measuring muscle activity around the larynx.

“That’s very novel and innovative,” Dietrich said. “Having the opportunity to apply this to speech pathology, I’m very grateful for that and excited because I think it’s going to be very powerful.”

In addition to conducting research in her Vocal Control and Well-Being Lab, Dietrich will use ambulatory devices to measure sEMG data while student teachers are in the classroom. Using wireless technology allows Dietrich to collect information during the peak period of student teaching. As her algorithm interprets more data, it begins to detect those unhealthy, career-ruining vocal patterns that an expert’s assessment sometimes can’t.

According to Janet Farmer, Associate Dean for Research, research like Dietrich’s requires funding for components as small as travel expenses or equipment like iPads. Researchers like Dietrich rely on funding – large and small – in order to pursue their work.

“If funding is there to get initial data, then they can apply for more funding based on that work, and truly move their research forward,” Farmer said.