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University of Hull researchers aim to restore voices

Dr James Gilbert
Image caption Dr James Gilbert with the prototype of the speech device

Hull University scientists hope a new technique will restore the voices of throat surgery patients.

The project is targeted at people who have undergone a laryngectomy, the removal of the voice box, which leaves the patient unable to speak.

The new technique aims to electronically recreate the patient's own voice, using pre-recorded words and phrases.

The research has received funding from the NHS for the next three years.

Return to hospital

Currently, the most common technique for speech restoration is a silicone valve placed in the throat which diverts air from the lungs and makes it vibrate, generating speech.

Fluid from the body can clog the unit after three or four months causing it to fail. Patients have to return to hospital to have the valves changed.

The new technique being researched at the University of Hull uses tiny magnets implanted in the tongue and lips.

The magnets create a three dimensional magnetic field in the mouth which changes shape as the person moves their tongue and lips to form words.

These changing shapes are fed to an electronic device containing pre-recorded speech, which can play the appropriate sound as the person forms the the shape of the word.

The patient can record the database of words before the surgery, meaning that the artificial voice will be their own.

'Social isolation'

Dr James Gilbert, from the university's department of engineering, is leading the project.

He said the research team had proved the concept was viable and was now working to improve the technology.

Dr Gilbert said that if successful, the technology could give patients a sense of normality.

He said: "Not being able to speak is a very major problem. It causes social isolation. People don't feel confident, quite often they don't feel able to work.

"So having a voice, and particularly their own voice, is very important to having their own identity."

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