New tech lets the paralyzed speak via "breath signals"

Loughborough researcher Dr. David Kerr (with Dr. Atul Gaur and Dr. Kaddour Bouazza-Marouf) uses the AAC(Credit: Loughborough University)

We've seen a number of technologies that speak on behalf of paralyzed people who are unable to do so. While some of these utilize cues as subtle as eye movements, the fact is that many severely paralyzed patients are unable to manage even those. That's why researchers at Britain's Loughborough University have created a system that speaks words based on the user's breathing.

Known as the Augmentative and Alternate Communication (AAC) device, it consists of a nose/mouth mask linked by a hose to a computer.

As the patient breathes in a specific pattern, custom software (via an analog-to-digital converter) recognizes that pattern as representing a certain word or phrase – the user initially decides for themselves what patterns will equate to what words, with the software learning from them as they go along.

Once the pattern has been identified, the AAC uses a speech synthesizer to speak the words aloud. So far, the researchers have had a 97.5 percent success rate at teaching the system to recognize words and phrases presented as "breath signals."

"This device could transform the way people with severe muscular weakness or other speech disorders communicate," says Dr. Atul Gaur, a consultant anesthetist who is collaborating with the Loughborough team. "In an intensive care setting, the technology has the potential to be used to make an early diagnosis of locked-in syndrome (LIS), by allowing patients, including those on ventilators, to communicate effectively for the first time by breathing – an almost effortless act which requires no speech, limb or facial movements."

The AAC can be seen (and heard) in use, in the video below.

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