CPA researchers receive Ideas Grant to make tech-enabled speech a reality for kids with cerebral palsy

CPA researchers receive Ideas Grant to make tech-enabled speech a reality for kids with cerebral palsy
Posted on Wed 10 Nov 2021

An international team of researchers led by Cerebral Palsy Alliance’s Dr Petra Karlsson has been awarded $1.1 million to support the development of a world-first data-driven voice library to enable real-time communication solutions for children with cerebral palsy.

Dr Karlsson’s team is among the successful recipients of the 2021 Ideas Grant scheme, administered by the National Health and Medical Research Council, to support innovative and creative Australian research.

The research grant will support the development of the ‘MY Voice Library’ project, a world-first database hosting the voices of children with cerebral palsy – the most common physical disability in childhood.

Speech is difficult or impossible for 50% of children with cerebral palsy, and the challenge to produce speech (known as dysarthria) can be a significant barrier to participating in everyday life.

While assistive technology can enable communication via speech for children with moderate to severe dysarthria, current solutions often rely on an arduous manual selection process to translate text or symbols to speech.

We know that up to half of children with CP face challenges to produce speech, depriving many of the communication which is at the very centre of our shared human experience.

On average, the communication rate using these technologies is 10 words per-minute, compared to 150-200 words per-minute for children who can speak – 15-20 times slower than other children.

While speech recognition to control assistive technology is now widely available, commercial algorithms such as Siri and Alexa break down even with mild dysarthria. A handful of research databases to address this have been established for adult cerebral palsy, but currently no such database exists for children with CP.

"We know that up to half of children with CP face challenges to produce speech, depriving many of the communication which is at the very centre of our shared human experience. The verbal comprehension of many children with CP far exceeds their ability to express speech, which means there is an urgent need for new technological solutions to bridge this gap,” said Dr Karlsson.

Recent rapid advances in artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality and brain computer interface technology, combined with new analysis techniques (such as facial movements and combined audio and video input), means the potential for a technological solution to speech difficulties can be developed.

In order to achieve this however, engineers and scientists need access to a high-quality library of voices of children with cerebral palsy, which is where MY Voice Library comes into the picture.

“Technology innovation can bridge the gap between comprehension and expression for children with cerebral palsy. The establishment of MY Voice Library is an important first step in potentially transforming the lives of many thousands of children living with disabilities,” she said.

The project will also involve a multi-disciplinary group of CP experts, including biomedical experts, allied health professionals and researchers:

  • Professor Alistair McEwan, Ainsworth Chair of Technology and Innovation at Cerebral Palsy Alliance and University of Sydney, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies
  • Dr. Hayley Smither-Sheedy, NHMRC Early Career Fellow, Children's Hospital at Westmead Clinical School, Cerebral Palsy Alliance, The University of Sydney
  • Dr. Michelle McInerney, School of Allied Health, The Australian Catholic University
  • Assistant Professor Silvia Orlandi, Biomedical Engineering, University of Bologna, Italy
  • Dr. Andrea Bandini, The BioRobotics Institute, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa, Italy

Episode 11 of CPA’s new podcast, Cerebral Conversations, featuring Professor Alistair McEwan in conversation with STEM journalist Rae Johnston, is out now! Head to CPA’s website for more.

The MY Voice Library holds the key to unlocking the potential of real-time communication for many people living with CP, and we’re proud to support this important work through the CPA Research Institute

MY Voice Library will also take a child and family-centred approach, with an advisory panel of people with lived experience of CP to ensure a user-friendly experience for children with CP. Maria Dalmon, who has been a CPA client for more than 50 years, is the project’s consumer representative.

“Finding a communication solution for people living with cerebral palsy and dysarthria has long been a central focus of families, clinicians and researchers. The MY Voice Library holds the key to unlocking the potential of real-time communication for many people living with CP, and we’re proud to support this important work through the CPA Research Institute,” said Rob White, CEO of Cerebral Palsy Alliance.

The MY Voice Library project adds to CPA’s proud track record of industry-leading databases to accelerate cerebral palsy research. The Australian Cerebral Palsy Register, created by CPA, is the largest database of its type in the world, while earlier this month CPA helped to establish CP Commons, the first collaborative database to progress understanding of the genome’s role in causing cerebral palsy.

To see the full list of projects to receive funding from the Ideas Grants scheme, head to the NHMRC website.

Welcome to the wrap up episode of Season One of Cerebral Conversations. Here are some highlights and never heard before stories from the great minds at Cerebral Palsy Alliance (CPA) and our special guests and hosts.

It’s been a weirdly wonderful time for me – you might’ve noticed I didn’t share a column with you in October? That’s because I was racing toward the finish line of my university degree, a double in Arts & International Studies if anyone was wondering. Four years of my life that unfolded in ways I never could’ve predicted.