Parkinson’s Research Tackles Speech, Swallowing Problems

Michelle Ciucci, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
Michelle Ciucci, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

Michelle Ciucci, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, and her research efforts were recently featured by the College of Letters & Sciences and with Wisconsin State Journal. Her research program is dedicated to understanding how aging and neurodegenerative disease contribute to communication and swallowing disorders.

Communication and swallowing are critical life functions and some of the most complex behaviors we exhibit as humans.

These functions are vulnerable to diseases that affect the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a complex neurodegenerative process that is classified as a movement disorder because it causes slow movement, difficulty walking and tremors. But some of its most debilitating symptoms are communication and swallowing difficulties.

People with Parkinson’s disease develop severe speech and swallowing disorders tha t can be socially isolating and unsafe. In fact, the leading cause of death in patients with Parkinson’s is aspiration pneumonia from food and liquid getting into their lungs.

Although we have made tremendous advances with medications and functional neurosurgery, communication and swallowing problems remain among the most difficult symptoms to treat.

This is because we don’t have a clear understanding of when these problems start in the disease process or the underlying pathologies that cause communication and swallowing dysfunction.

Our team of scientists, graduate students and undergraduates approach these gaps in knowledge by studying neurons, muscles and other body tissues in models of Parkinson’s disease.

We are finding that certain areas of the brain and body have altered neurochemicals and genes that may be causing communication and swallowing dysfunctions. We are also using exercise and drugs to help treat these problems.

Understanding the onset, progression and pathology in Parkinson’s disease will allow us to discover better treatments and develop prevention strategies. Collaborating with the larger scientific community, we hope to a find cure.