Technology helps patients with neurological conditions to store voice for when they lose it

John Withingham, who has used voice-banking technology funded by The National Brain Appeal (Jane Ferguson Photography)
John Withingham, who has used voice-banking technology funded by The National Brain Appeal (Jane Ferguson Photography)

A London hospital is using technology to help patients with progressive neurological conditions to store their voice for when they lose it in future.

Voice banking allows people to record phrases using a dedicated computer programme. Speech sounds are then converted into a personal synthetic voice that can be used when they are no longer able to use their own.

The Neurology Speech & Language Therapy team at The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (TNHNN) in central London have been using the technology to help patients with conditions so severe that it deprives them of the ability to speak.

Around 80 per cent of motor neurone disease (MND) patients become unable to communicate even the most straight-forward of needs using natural speech.

Project leader Jodi Allen said: “Our voice is a fundamental part of who we are. By offering our patients the opportunity voice-bank, we can keep the door open for them to talk to the dog, read to grandchildren and chat to family and friends, long after their own speech has been lost.”

Ten years ago, John Withingham was diagnosed with a form of cerebellar ataxia, called Spinocerebellar ataxia type 6 (SCA6), a neurological condition that affects coordination, balance, speech and vision. It is an inherited condition that Mr Whittingham, 68, witnessed happening to both his father and grandfather.

In April this year, Mr Withingham worked with the speech and language therapists at TNHNN who used the voice banking equipment to record his voice.

He said: “It was very easy to do. I was amazed at how few words and phrases I needed to record. I read about thirty phrases and that seemed to cover everything.

“I am still able to do most things, apart from writing, driving, and I use a wheeled walking frame outdoors. At the moment I can just about have a conversation and make myself understood. However, my condition is progressive and it is reassuring to know that the recordings of my voice are stored and ready for when I will need them. It will be nicer for my family and loved ones to still be able to hear my voice. Voice-banking is a very positive thing for people in my position.”

The equipment was funded by The National Brain Appeal’s Small Acorns fund, which enables frontline NHS staff to access funding for small-scale projects that have a positive impact on patient care.

It has funded 140 projects since its launch in 2013.

Theresa Dauncey, chief executive of The National Brain Appeal, said: “Our raison d'être is to help to transform the lives of people affected by neurological and neuromuscular conditions. We know that frontline staff are the ones that best understand the day-to-day challenges faced by patients and their families and Small Acorns is there to help these staff get their ideas off the ground to make improvements where they are most needed.”