Future face of speech therapy mapped out by Scottish scientists

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Scottish researchers are using ultrasound technology to help treat children with speech problems.

Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh and Edinburgh University have developed an innovative technique to allow youngsters who have problems forming words to see on a computer screen how their tongue is moving.

Researchers can then use this information to help teach children how to make the right shapes they need to pronounce words.

The researchers now hope to create even clearer images of the tongue using information taken from MRI scans, making it easier for youngsters to see how they can improve their speech.

Speech sound disorders – where people have difficulties forming certain sounds – are common in childhood, affecting around 6.5 per cent of children and making communication difficult. But experts fear that current treatment is inadequate.

Professor Jim Scobbie, director of the Clinical Audiology, Speech and Language Research Centre at QMU, said: “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 then try to modify them.

“However, with these more traditional methods, some children struggle to improve their speech.

“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.”

But the ultrasound images alone can be grainy and information on what the tip of the tongue is doing unclear.

So now, working with speech technologists at Edinburgh University, the researchers will enhance the pictures, making them much clearer and easier for children to understand, using image-processing software called Ultrax.

Images of adult volunteers making different speech sounds with their tongues will first be captured using MRI scans and ultrasound combined.

This information will be fed into a computer to be used in conjunction with the ultrasound equipment fitted on a helmet worn by the child.

The ultrasound images on the computer screen will appear much clearer, creating a more simplified display of the tongue for the child to mimic.

It is hoped this will lead to images similar to the lip-synched animated faces used in Hollywood CGI movies.

Dr Joanne Cleland, speech therapist on the project, said: “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 the improved visual feedback will be extremely useful in helping children to overcome their speech disorders.”