When thinking about the diagnosis or treatment of illnesses, making a connection with language and speech is not immediately obvious. But, according to Vass Verkhodanova, there are opportunities in this area. She is conducting research at the UG/Campus Fryslân into changes in the speech abilities of Parkinson’s patients.
Ask Vass Verkhodanova about the importance of her research and, with a gush of enthusiasm, she will passionately talk about the wonder of speech and language, the interplay between sounds and brains and the isolation that people can directly fall into if their speech abilities decline. Her explanation demonstrates her drive. Her interest in compromised speech abilities in elderly patients with neurodegenerative diseases began when her grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, started to experience speech difficulties herself.
The speech of Parkinson’s patients changes as a result of the disease: it becomes monotonous, vowels start to sound more similar to one another and speakers might experience shortness of breath. When asking a question, both word order and intonation usually play a role: at the end of the sentence, the pitch is raised. But people with Parkinson’s disease cannot always form these subtle intonation nuances. At least 90 percent of Parkinson’s patients eventually experience speech difficulties – and all of the consequences that come along with this. Verkhodanova: ‘People are social creatures. Speech is essential to who we are, to be able to function in a group. Without the subtleties of speech, you can become isolated and, as a result, may experience depression.’
Small changes in speech
Until now, there has been no simple test for Parkinson’s disease – only an expensive scan is able to reveal the disease in patients. ‘At that moment, patients are already at a late stage of the disease and you cannot delay its progression as well,’ explains Verkhodanova. ‘Therefore, together with researchers at the UMCG, I hope to develop a tool that can detect Parkinson’s disease earlier on, when the first signs of changes in speech occur. To this end, I am mapping signals that are typical to Parkinson’s disease. Experienced doctors can often already hear such changes in speech. But then you must also be able to establish these technologically.’ Eventually, this could lead to developments such as an app which detects signs of the disease through your own or your family members’ speech.
Frisian version of renowned fable
Verkhodanova is working together with around 40 patients that she approached through the Medical Center Leeuwaarden (MCL) and the UMCG. She carries out interviews with patients but they must, for example, also read an extract from the old Greek fable The North Wind and the Sun. Language researchers from all around the world use this text because it contains all of the sounds that we use in speech. ‘For my research, the Fryske Akademy translated the text specially into Frisian,’ says Verkhodanova, ‘as I am also conducting research with Frisian speakers.’
Verkhodanova has been speaking with one Parkinson’s patient once a month for two years already and has been making recordings of the patient’s speech. ‘He is very curious about the results but it is obviously also a nerve-wracking and confrontational experience. Although his speech is still fairly good, I can see the deterioration. He hears it too and is now going to speech therapy. On the one hand, it is very painful but on the other hand, I am happy that I have already been able to help someone a bit.’
What has struck her most until now? ‘All of my testing subjects want to help out so much! Even though they have difficulty with some tasks and it takes a lot of energy for them. The Netherlands is deeply committed to Parkinson’s patients and the level of organization here is high.’ As a researcher, this is an ideal situation to work in to achieve her mission: putting a stop to neurodegenerative diseases. ‘If you want to improve people’s quality of life, then Parkinson’s is an important disease to tackle. We can influence the future,’ concludes Verkhodanova assertively.
Vass Verkhodanova is a linguist and is working as a PhD student at the UG/Campus Fryslân. She is conducting research into changes in speech in Parkinson’s patients.
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