Transforming the lives of stroke patients with computer-based speech therapy

Person using SWORD software

Our SWORD software application is helping stroke patients speak again by using images, words and sounds to kickstart their damaged nerve systems.

Experts in our Department of Human Communication Sciences research treatment for patients with stroke and other forms of brain injury. Stroke, for example, often results in debilitating communication impairments, which affects a patient’s capacity to verbally express thoughts and needs.

Post-stroke speech therapy includes different approaches: those which target the rehabilitation of speech at the level of individual sounds, such as ‘f’ and ‘m’, for example, and those which are aimed at connected speech such as phrases and sentences.

Professor Whiteside from our Department of Human Communication Sciences and Professor Varley (University College London) have developed a computer-based treatment programme which addresses speech problems from a completely new perspective.

Patients who used the software showed reduced levels of struggle during speech production tasks and also displayed improvements in speech accuracy for trained vocabulary

The programme is based on the theory that speech is more successfully restored when patients learn entire phrases, rather than breaking down words into individual sounds such as ‘f’ and ‘m’. Their theory is based on neurobiological principles of movement control for speech articulation, which are underpinned by sensory-motor systems, such as hearing.

Based on this research, the department developed Sheffield Word (SWORD), a software application, which is designed to rebuild speech production via computer-based therapy. The therapy programme incorporates listening and speaking components which are reliant on intense sensory-motor stimulation using auditory and visual media, such as sound files, written words, talking head videos and pictures.

A study funded by the BUPA Foundation enabled the team to embark on a clinical trial of 50 participants, which tested the outcomes of SWORD. Patients who used the software showed reduced levels of struggle during speech production tasks and also displayed improvements in speech accuracy for trained vocabulary.

Computer-based therapies like SWORD have the potential to deliver high doses of treatment in a cost-effective way. SWORD is currently being deployed in NHS clinics and community centres across the UK. Feedback from users has been very encouraging, and both therapists and families have also been positive about the programme.