A ’bionic’ larynx sounds far more natural than regular artificial voice boxes

Scientists at the MARCS Institute at Western Sydney University in Australia have demonstrated a groundbreaking noninvasive artificial larynx that could be used to give a voice back to patients around the world, whose voice boxes have been removed as the result of cancer.

What makes the Pneumatic Artificial Larynx (PAL) demo different to other artificial larynxes is the fact that it doesn’t require invasive surgical implantation and utilizes a patient’s own respiratory system in order to work.

The existing type of treatment involving artificial larynxes means surgically implanting a prosthetic device into the stoma, an artificial opening in the neck made by a surgeon. Not only is this approach invasive, but it also opens patients up to the risk of infections and can result in a voice that sounds strained and whispery.

“Despite emergent progress in many fields of bionics, a functional Bionic Voice prosthesis for laryngectomy patients (larynx amputees) has not yet been achieved, leading to a lifetime of vocal disability for these patients,” the researchers write.

The so-called “Bionic Voice” offers an alternate approach. It is an electronic device that uses the patient’s own breath to create a humming sound. This is then converted into speech through the movement of the user’s lips and tongue. The result is an artificial voice box that can carry out the function of the larynx but without the degraded speech or associated health risks of other approaches. It’s an amazing advance that hints at enormous promise for the patients who may one day rely on this on a daily basis.

Next up, the researchers at Western Sydney University plan to develop the project in order to create a pneumatic bionic voice prosthesis that would take the form of a small “control unit” fixed over the patient’s neck, along with a “voice source” unit on the roof of a wearer’s mouth. This will reportedly improve speech levels further — resulting in more regular human-sounding speech far beyond the dreams of many people who previously used artificial larynxes.

A paper describing the work, titled “A pneumatic Bionic Voice prosthesis — Pre-clinical trials of controlling the voice onset and offset,” was recently published in the journal Plos One.