Engineering a solution for swallowing disorders

Dysphagia – difficulty in swallowing – affects thousands of New Zealanders.

Each year, around half of our 9,000 stroke patients develop dysphagia, but it’s also caused by Parkinson’s, motor neurone, Huntingdon’s, brain trauma and developmental feeding problems.

Dysphagia means these people can’t generate the right pressure in the right sequence to swallow and they can’t “see” the process.

“And that’s the major stumbling block, because patients have to be able to see what they’re doing with swallowing in order to change it,” says researcher Professor Maggie-Lee Huckabee, from the Department of Communication Disorders at the University of Canterbury.

“For certain types of swallowing impairment, the only available treatment is inserting a tube in the throat that can show the pressure on a screen for patients to modify, but that’s uncomfortable and invasive. We think we have a better way.”

Professor Huckabee, who is also Director of the UC Rose Centre for Stroke Recovery and Research in Christchurch, has been working with engineers Esther Guiu-Hernandez and Paul Gaynor PhD on a new, non-invasive device.

“One of the centre’s goals is affordable and non-invasive technology, and we’ve developed a prototype of a device that will benefit clinicians, the health sector and patients.”
The device uses electrodes placed on the skin around the throat that measure changes in impedance. “It’s proving to be a good proxy for pressure measurement and is much better tolerated in terms of comfort and safety” she says.

“Patients can “see” the wave form of the pharynx closing during swallowing. They can see how the sequence of pressure starts at the top and works its way down.”

The device is non-invasive, something that’s of concern with patients who can find the tubal insertion distressing. It’s highly transportable and will run off an app.

We envision that following with a few training sessions to understand the treatment and learn how to use the device, patients could then take it home to reinforce direct face to face therapy.

“This means fewer hospital visits, and the clinician can remotely assess data from the app and work with the patient using tools such as Skype, FaceTime and telehealth apps. Can you imagine how much better it will be for someone living rurally? They won’t have to drive to a hospital but will be able to access healthcare from their homes.”

Professor Huckabee believes this device will lower the cost of rehabilitation, free up clinicians and staff, reduce hospital visits, and enable patients to recover more quickly. Now, she’s looking to New Zealand’s seed funding and medtech sectors to join them and get the device to market.

“We’re not talking about a high cost high profit device. We’re proposing something that’s affordable and low risk that will benefit everyone from patients to clinicians and the wider health sector.”

Professor Huckabee believes their device would work for many other patients with dysphagia.

By Prue Scott

The GULPS Team – Maggie-Lee Huckabee, Esther Guiu-Hernandez (from right to left) and Paul Gaynor (missing)