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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Researcher studies new diagnostic and assessment tools for voice disorders

Study published in the journal "Laryngoscope"

Sept. 28, 2012, by Judy Holmes

British singer-songwriter Adele rocked the music world last February with her performance at the 54th Grammy Awards, just three months after surgery to remove a benign polyp on her vocal chord.  She walked away with six Grammys, including 2012 Album of the Year, tying the record for the most Grammy awards for a female artist in one night.

Adele’s success came with a price—a classic case of hemorrhagic bleeding polyp from over stressing her vocal chords.  The condition is not limited to singers; experts say anyone who uses his or her voice professionally is at risk. A Syracuse University speech-language pathologist is researching better ways to diagnose various types of dysphonia, or voice-related malfunctions, which can result from overuse, injury, or physiological processes.

In a study published earlier this year in Laryngoscope, Soren Lowell, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences, documented that the larynx of people with primary muscle-tension dysphonia is abnormally elevated during speech production when compared to people without the disorder.  The findings were based on measurements of the position of the larynx relative to the spinal column in x-rays taken of study participants both at “rest” and during speech production. 
Primary muscle-tension dysphonia is characterized by a rough or hoarse voice; a sense of strained, effortful voice; and voice that gets worse with progressive use, then may get better with rest. Treatment involves laryngeal massage and training individuals to produce voice with less strain on their vocal chords.

“While the disorder is not new, this is the first objective study confirming that structures involved in voice production are elevated; and the study scientifically validates physiologic treatment targets developed for muscle-tension dysphonia,” Lowell says. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation provided funding for the study through a Research Grant for New Investigators.

Lowell is currently conducting spectral and cepstral acoustic analyses of voice in people with disorders characterized by strained, breathy, and rough qualities. “Spectral and cepstral analyses of speech allow for a more accurate differentiation between normal voice patterns and patterns produced with dysphonia,” she says. “The analyses may provide a way to more accurately diagnose these disorders and an objective way to measure changes in voice patterns in response to treatment, rather than exclusively relying on subjective assessments of what we hear.”

Lowell holds a Ph.D. in speech and hearing sciences and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology, both from the University of Arizona. Prior to her appointment at SU in 2008, Lowell was a Research Fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. She also worked clinically for a number of years as a speech-language pathologist.