Grant From Michael J. Fox Foundation Fuels New Study to Evaluate Speech Symptoms in Parkinson Disease


The study, expected to be completed in 2024, will look specifically at vocal abnormalities related to the early stages of Parkinson disease progression.

Tonya Simuni, MD, head, Feinberg School of Medicine Movement Disorders Center, Northwestern University

Tonya Simuni, MD

According to an announcement, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF) has awarded a research grant to Koneksa, a healthcare technology compared geared toward advancing digital biomarkers, and researchers at the Northwestern University, to fund a study aimed at investigating speech symptoms in patients with Parkinson disease (PD).1

Led by Tonya Simuni, MD, head, Feinberg School of Medicine Movement Disorders Center, Northwestern University, the study will evaluate a measurement concept that is designed to objectively quantify the severity of symptoms related to PD, and specifically, vocal abnormalities found in the early stages of the disease. Patient recruitment is scheduled to begin in the third quarter of 2022, with the trial expected to be completed in 2024.

"The lack of clear and reliable biomarkers is one of the greatest hurdles to developing and testing new treatments that slow, stop, or even prevent Parkinson’s disease,” Chris Benko, chief executive officer, Koneska, said in a statement.1 "This is a key unmet need for Parkinson patients, and Koneksa’s digital biomarker technology will enable researchers to diagnose the disease and measure its progression. This will lead to more definitive clinical trial outcomes."

Speech difficulties and voice problems are quite common in people with PD, with between 75% and 90% of patients developing them over the course of their illness. PD motor symptoms, such as decreased facial expression, slowness, and stooped posture, may add to speech problems. Nonmotor symptoms, including cognitive problems, can also lead to difficulty finding the right words and slower speech.2

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Previous research has suggested that speech impairment may be an early indicator of disease progression. One such 2013 study from Skodda et al aimed to survey the development of different measures of voice and speech performance in the clinical course of PD. When compared with age- and gender-matched controls, the perceptual analysis revealed a significant deterioration in all of the monitored speech dimensions for patients with PD. The voice and speech performance were found to further deteriorate in individuals with PD over the course of time although global motor impairment was widely stable, which “might be a hint for nondopaminergic mechanisms of progression of dysarthrophonia," the investigators wrote.3

"We are grateful to MJFF and privileged to collaborate with Northwestern University. Digital biomarkers are revolutionizing translational science and have proven efficacy specifically in Parkinson's disease,” John A. Wagner, MD, PhD, chief medical officer, Koneksa, said in a statement.1 “Our hope is that increased use of digital biomarkers will lead to more life-saving therapies for patients with Parkinson's disease."

PD medication adjustments have been shown to help patients with their speech issues, but results have been inconsistent. Speech therapy is the typical treatment patients turn to, although PD-specific programs, including Lee Silverman Voice Treatment LOUD and Parkinson Voice Project SPEAK OUT! have also been used to combat these symptoms. Swallowing therapy, another form of speech therapy, is another route patients take in standard care. Those specialists recommend exercises to strengthen swallowing muscles, as well as diet modifications such as thickening liquids.

1. Koneksa and Northwestern University awarded a grant from the Michael J. Fox Foundaiton to investigate speech symptoms in Parkinson disease. News release. Koneska. June 16, 2022. Accessed June 16, 2022.
2. Speech & Swallowing problems. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Accessed June 16, 2022.
3. Skodda S, Gronheit W, Mancinelli N, Schlegal U. Progression of voice and speech impairment in the course of Parkinson disease: a longitudinal study. Published online December 10, 2013. Adv Neurosci (Hindawi). doi:10.1155/2013/389195.
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