Shaky hands, tremors, rigid muscles, slower movements—these are all recognizable symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder affecting a half million people in the United States.
Rahul Shrivastav, professor and chair of MSU’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, is working on a way to detect the disease earlier in patients by measuring a lesser known symptom: a change in speech.
“I was looking at speech changes and Parkinson’s disease about five years ago as part of another team,” says Shrivastav. “That sort of evolved into this new project where my team and I said, ‘If we can measure small changes in speech, what could we use that measurement for?’ One of the things that came out was we could use it to detect the onset of the disease.”
There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, so early detection is particularly important since the treatments currently available for controlling symptoms are most effective at that stage.
“It’s a pretty aggressive disease,” says Shrivastav. “It starts off gradually but has a very big impact on people’s lives eventually. There’s no formal diagnostic method. It’s mostly subjective. Speech is one of the things we know very well changes. In fact, there is enough data out there to know it’s one of the first things to change in a lot of people.”
Shrivastav hopes that by designing tools to capture those changes, which are very small, inaudible changes, neurologists and other health care providers will have a way to make a diagnostic decision that isn’t possible otherwise.
Those same tools might have applications in diagnosing and treating other diseases as well.
“Our goal is to be able to come up with ways to essentially find a fingerprint in the speech sample for a variety of different diseases,” says Shrivastav. “Parkinson’s is just the one that we are probably farthest along with. We’ve started looking at other conditions as well. They’re all things that affect part of the brain that impact speech.”
None of Shrivastav’s work is possible without collaboration between experts in different areas.
“Mark Skowronski is working with us. He’s an engineer,” Shrivastav says. “He does a lot of the signal processing side for us. We have people who are really engaged in the speech and speech disorders side. We have the neurologists who know the disease and the treatment and how it impacts patients. It’s all teamwork. It’s impossible for any one person to do this. It’s so enmeshed, it’s impossible to say that this came out of any one academic area.”
Shrivastav, who has been at MSU for a year, is hopeful that the work the team is doing will lead to invaluable tools that will change the diagnosis and treatment of this debilitating disease.
“With the aging population, the statistic is about 50,000 new diagnoses every year,” Shrivastav says. “We hope that we can really come up with a low-cost, highly sensitive method that could be used by as many people as possible to improve health care and the quality of life.”