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When you make facial expressions, use gestures, or simply write, you are using something known as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). AAC refers to forms of communication other than oral speech that allow people to express themselves. This type of communication is especially important for people with disabilities that prevent or limit oral communication. Augmentative and alternative communication devices are tools that help to facilitate this kind of communication.

A new AAC device has been developed by researchers at Loughborough University. The prototype analyzes changes in breathing patterns and uses pattern recognition software to convert these “breath signals” into words. A speech synthesizer is used to read the words aloud. The device is targeted towards victims of severe paralysis who suffer from loss of speech. These patients are also unable to make movements like sniffing and blinking which other AAC devices depend on.

The newly developed device learns from its user, gaining more knowledge about its user’s communication preferences over time. This essentially allows the user to create a unique language based on variations in their breathing, say Dr. David Kerr and Dr. Kaddour Bouazza-Marouf, two of the researchers involved in the development of the device. Dr. Kerr also reported a 97.5% success rate in teaching the device to recognize words and phrases. As the device uses analog signals in a continuous form, more information can be collected within a shorter period of time.

 Sinusoidal waves on an older analog oscilloscope.

Image Source: Visuals Unlimited, Inc./GIPhotoStock

As indicated by Dr. Atul Gaul, another member of the research team, the device has great potential to change communication for patients with speech disorders or severe muscular weakness. The device could also help in an early diagnosis of locked-in syndrome (LIS), a neurological disorder in which all voluntary muscles are paralyzed except those controlling eye movement. The researchers plan to continue work on the prototype to increase its effectiveness as a communication tool for those unable to use oral speech.

Feature Image Source: Handicapped by Mark Grapengater

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