Communications Disorders Professor Receives Meritorious Award for Research into Throat Dryness

Dr. Kristine Tanner with her research assistant Alison Miner

Dr. Kristine Tanner with her research assistant, Alison Miner

Communication disorders professor Kristine Tanner has earned a meritorious poster award from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) for her research into treatment for throat dryness resulting from Sjögren’s Syndrome.

Posters are reviewed and meritorious award recipients selected by members of an ASHA review committee. This is the second time Tanner’s research team has received this honor.

Tanner and her research assistant, Alison Miner, recently traveled to Orlando, Florida, to present their poster for the annual ASHA Convention. Nearly 12,000 professionals, including speech-language pathologists, audiologists, and scientists from the speech, language, and hearing fields, attended the 2014 convention.

The ASHA review committee isn’t under any obligation to give out meritorious poster awards, and this is the second time Tanner has been recognized by the committee for her work.

The poster featured Tanner’s research into how different hydration techniques can help people who suffer from Sjögren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease for which one of the principal symptoms is throat dryness. In the United States alone, more than four million are affected by this condition.

Tanner said hydration treatments must be focused on the vocal cords in order to relieve the dryness. Equipment like humidifiers can help, but directly targeting this part of the body is challenging with traditional treatment methods.“We can’t directly apply a hydration treatment or a lubricant to the vocal cords like we can to people’s eyes or their skin, and humidifiers can only do so much,” Tanner said. “My research looks at how blowing saline particles onto the vocal folds using a nebulizer can help improve voice quality.”

Nebulizers are portable devices that turn liquids into mist, like an inhaler used by an asthma patient. For Tanner’s study, a group of Sjögren’s Syndrome patients used nebulizers with a saline solution for eight weeks and recorded their voices. After analyzing recordings from the beginning of the eight-week period to the end, Tanner found that voice quality among the patients had significantly improved.

Analyzing the recordings required some extra help. Miner, a graduate student pursuing her master’s in communications disorders, assisted with the acoustic analysis portion of the study. “Alison is an outstanding student, and she played a huge role in the success of this study,” Tanner said. “She listened to and analyzed nearly 1,800 recordings gathered during the course of our research.”

Miner said detecting differences in participant voices required using dysphonia (voice disorder) analysis techniques. “The system assigns a severity rating to voice, and then it analyzes it and gives you a number rating. A lower rating means a more typical, normal voice; a higher rating means the voice is more dysphonic,” Miner explained.

Once Miner finished the analysis, she and Tanner put together the poster explaining their research. Tanner said she is pleased to know that this study may lay groundwork for moving Sjögren’s Syndrome treatments forward.

“There are probably other treatments out there that we haven’t studied, but the nice thing is that we’ve made helpful observations,” Tanner said. “The treatment method we’ve discovered is simple, natural, healthy, and inexpensive.”

The next stop for Tanner’s findings is the Combined Otolaryngology Spring Meetings in Boston, Massachusetts, in April 2015. “We’re excited to present our research to the ear, nose, and throat community,” Tanner said. “We hope that they will find our results intriguing and maybe start recommending this to patients with dry throats.”

Writer: Shazia Chiu

Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922