At the Speed of Technology
Cutting-Edge Collaborations Help HHS Researchers Bring Innovative Products to the Marketplace

Necessity may indeed be the mother of invention. And whether they're saving lives or simply helping people cope with the difficulties of life, researchers throughout the College of Health and Human Sciences (HHS) are delivering much needed solutions to a world beyond campus. Several such patented inventions are representative of the here and now philosophy among faculty researchers in the young college.

Larry Leverenz, clinical professor of health and kinesiology, has collaborated with Purdue engineers to measure the impact of repetitive head injuries in football. Their findings indicate that it's not so much the force of the concussive hit, but rather the accumulation of blows that does the most damage. Nationally renowned for its research, the Purdue Neurotrauma Group is working on ways to mitigate both the number of blows and the magnitude of those blows to the brain.

"Through innovation in equipment and changes in player skill and technique, we're working to make the game safer without changing the game we love to watch and play," says Leverenz, who was also named to the Medical Advisory Committee of the GE/NFL Head Health Initiative, a $60 million research initiative to develop new technologies for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of head injuries.

Other researchers within HHS are extending themselves beyond their own areas of expertise — fostering collaborative efforts across campus, conducting clinical trials and investigating the marketplace for the best product placement.

Raising voices, lifting hope

Oliver Wendt

Autism App: Oliver Wendt, assistant professor in SLHS and in the Department of Educational Studies, demonstrates SPEAK all!, an Apple iPad application that is helping children with autism learn how to speak. (Photo provided by the Purdue Research Foundation)

Voices silenced by Parkinson's disease or seldom heard because of autism can be devastating for families. Clinical researchers from the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences (SLHS) have worked with both young and elderly patients to deal with these conditions, effectively addressing quality-of-life issues.

Oliver Wendt, assistant professor in SLHS and in the Department of Educational Studies, works with children with severe autism. About 50 percent of children with a classic autism diagnosis have no speech at all and are candidates for augmentative and alternative communications, he says.

Traditional low-tech approaches sought to help children communicate through a picture communication book. A child could get his desired item, such as a cookie, by selecting a graphic symbol card to communicate with a partner. A device that added voice output had some facilitative effect but proved to be too cumbersome for kids, according to occupational therapists.

Since 2011, Wendt has led a group of students in the development of SPEAK all!, an Apple iPad application that has shown dramatic success in helping children with autism learn how to communicate and develop natural speech. The free application, which allows the child to construct and hear a sentence through a simple point and slide, has been downloaded more than 10,000 times. Wendt received $50,000 through the Trask Innovation Fund (TIF) to help commercialize his SPEAK All! innovation. TIF, managed by the Purdue Research Foundation, is a development program to assist faculty and staff whose discoveries are being commercialized through the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization.

SPEAK all! is the byproduct of Purdue's renowned EPICS, or Engineering Projects in Community Service, program. Fourteen students from a variety of disciplines, including SLHS, electrical engineering, computer science, education and liberal arts all had a hand in building it.

The next step is fixing the bugs and ramping up the app. "We're trying to make it more robust," says Wendt, whom Purdue honored with a Focus Award in March, recognizing outstanding efforts related to disabilities.

Most encouraging to Wendt, however, might be the documented success of SPEAK all! in therapy. "People are sometimes afraid that their child will rely on the application too much and never develop his or her own speech," he says. "But the opposite is proving true. It's facilitating natural speech, and whenever the child is ready, the device can be phased out."

With staggering statistics pointing to autism on the rise — as common as one in 50 children now versus one in 150 six years ago — this high-tech strategy is a hopeful breakthrough.

On the other end of the age spectrum, Jessica Huber, associate professor of SLHS, encourages Parkinson's patients to stay engaged with life. Weakened voice and poor articulation, symptoms associated with the disease, can often cause them to withdraw. Her charge? "We try to get them to speak louder," says Huber, who has worked with biomedical engineers for the last few years on creating a device to help them do just that.

SpeechVive, a Bluetooth-looking device that sits behind a patient's ear, influences louder speech by providing a steady stream of background noise similar to sounds in a crowded restaurant. Known as the Lombard effect, the natural response by the wearer is to speak more loudly.

The response from clinical trials has been overwhelmingly positive. Patients reported feeling like they were not being ignored. "I also noticed a change in patients when I got to see them interacting in normal environments," Huber says.

The road to a SpeechVive patent also has given Huber great insight into the process that transforms great ideas into marketplace realities. She has spent 2012-13 as the faculty entrepreneur-in-residence at Purdue's Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship.


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