Studying the biomechanics of voice disorders

By Gina Mantica, Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering

Voice disorders don’t just change how a person sounds when they speak; they can also cause pain and impact a person’s wellbeing. Studying voice disorders in patients provides researchers with a snapshot of what’s happening during speech, whereas modeling can provide a full picture of the neural and physiological mechanisms underlying the disorders. Now, researchers can also investigate how the biomechanics and neural control of the vocal folds, together, influence voice disorders using a model created at Boston University.

Hasini Weerathunge, a Graduate Student Fellow at the Hariri Institute and PhD Candidate in Biomedical Engineering, led the development of a new model for speech production that combines neural, physiological, and biomechanical information about the vocal folds. The results were published recently in PLOS Computational Biology.

Voice disorders have a wide range of causes: from tense throat muscles, to neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease. The impacts, however, are similar. People with voice disorders need to exert extra effort to speak and get fatigue easily. Previous models of speech production and perception focus on how the nervous system controls speech. “Modeling helps us visualize and summarize everything that people have done for the past few decades, and we can go even further to inform and design new experiments,” says Weerathunge.

Weerathunge, along with a team of researchers from Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María (UTFSM) and Boston University (BU) combined an established model of speech motor control known as “DIVA” originally developed at BU, with a biomechanical model originally developed at UTFSM to create “LaDIVA”. LaDIVA can capture the tension, stiffness, and size of the vocal folds to better understand how air flows through the vocal tract and affects speech qualities, like pitch and loudness.

This new, holistic model of the vocal folds can be used to assess and discover new treatments for voice disorders, by both informing clinicians’ test results and enabling researchers to run experiments that can’t be performed on people. “Sometimes, behavioral results lead to questions of whether the underlying issue is physiological or neurological. We can put these parameters into a model and test these different components individually,” said Weerathunge.


This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders through Grants No. P50 DC015446, F31 DC014872, F32 DC017637, R01 DC016270, and R01 DC002852, and by the Agencia Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo through Grants Nos. FONDECYT 1191369, and BASAL FB0008. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.