Geralyn Schulz's recent study shows surgery can improve speech for a significant number of Parkinson's patients
When Parkinson's Disease sufferer James Stuebe underwent brain surgery last year, he was overjoyed that it nearly eliminated the tremors in his right arm and hand.
But the surgery, which involves drilling a hole in the skull and sending a probe deep into the brain, also had another beneficial effect: it improved his voice.
"I felt I was speaking in a monotone that was quite noticeable before I had the surgery, and I was told the volume of my voice was tapering off at the end of sentences," he said. "I think I've got most of the color back in my voice that I had before."
Stuebe, 66, a retired motorcycle dealership service manager in Gainesville, is one of several patients to experience speech improvements as a result of the surgery known as pallidotomy, according to the results of a new study by a team of University of Florida researchers, led by CLAS communication sciences professor Geralyn Schulz.
Schulz found that seven of 12 Parkinson's patients with mild speech volume problems improved following pallidotomy surgery, a statistically significant 58 percent.
More than 1.5 million Americans suffer from Parkinson's Disease, a degenerative neurological disorder that reduces the ability to control muscles, resulting in tremors, slow movement and rigidity. About 80 percent of Parkinson's patients also experience speech and voice problems, including reduced volume, slurring and slowed speech. Well-known Parkinson's sufferers include actor Michael J. Fox, country singer Johnny Cash and US Attorney General Janet Reno.
While pallidotomy is widely known to reduce or eliminate the tremors often associated with Parkinson's, Schulz's study is the first to offer scientific evidence the surgery can also raise the volume of patients' voices. "It's exciting to know that something is helpful for at least one of the speech symptoms," she says. Her paper on the study recently was accepted for publication in the Journal of Voice, a leading national journal on speech and voice issues.
Schulz, who joined the UF faculty in 1995, has long been fascinated by the relation of the brain to language. "My interest in the field started early in my undergraduate days as a linguistics major," she said. "I am still amazed by the fact that I can communicate to you through speech (based on electrical and chemical transmission of information in my brain), and that you can understand me and, in fact, have a 'window' into my brain (through electrical and chemical transmission of information in your head)."
"For Parkinson's patients, often the combination of limb motor problems and problems speaking leads to social withdrawal," Schulz says. "I am hoping that my research will lead to greater improvements for these patients in terms of their ability to communicate and thus to resume normal social interactions."
The other members of Schulz's research team are Melvin Greer, professor of neurology, and William Friedman, professor of neurological surgery, both at the UF College of Medicine. All three researchers are members of the UF Brain Institute.