Q. First, what role do speech pathologists play in treating cleft and craniofacial differences?
A. Our work is a crucial component of a multidisciplinary team that involves patients, surgeons, speech pathologists, nurses, dentists, psychologists, social workers and more. This collaboration can make such a big impact on children’s lives because facilitating normal speech function is an important piece of cleft and craniofacial care.
A lot of people think you just have a surgery and then speech will be fine. But surgery alone, most of the time, isn’t going to fix the problem. As children learn to produce speech, they often establish motor patterns to try to work around a cleft, which results in speech that is difficult to understand.
This is because the velopharyngeal mechanism, or speech and resonance mechanism, is impacted by the cleft. This is an anatomic region at the back of our throat and it’s like a door between our nose and our mouth. The door is opening and closing for every speech sound that we say. It’s absolutely critical for clear and understandable speech. Speech pathologists are essential in helping to improve speech for these children, and this is a key area for research.
Q. What is your focus at the Imaging and Communication Outcomes Lab?
A. Our lab’s mission is to improve speech and surgical outcomes for individuals with cleft and craniofacial differences. We are integrating cutting-edge imaging technology along with 3D visualization and machine learning techniques. We’re also working to develop translational precision medicine approaches – moving things from the research lab into clinical practice – for assessment of speech function.
It’s very multidisciplinary work and heavily focused on the principles of team science, so we have a lot of collaborators. Here at UVA, we’re collaborating with colleagues in the Multiscale Muscle Mechanophysiology Lab to develop computational models of the velopharyngeal mechanism. We’re also working with surgeons in the UVA Cleft clinics, assessing outcomes and identifying anatomic predictors for success.