Designing the Future of Dysphagia Care

A UT Health Austin speech-language pathologist collaborates with other researchers at The University of Texas at Austin to advance swallowing disorder treatment

Reviewed by: Corinne Jones, PhD, CCC-SLP
Written by: Lauren Schneider

A middle-aged Asian man drinking a glass of water.

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a new wearable collar that measures swallowing patterns, which could benefit doctors treating swallowing disorders, collectively known as dysphagia. Dysphagia is associated with difficulty swallowing, meaning it takes more time and effort to move food or liquid from the stomach to the mouth. Swallowing is a complex process, with approximately 50 pairs of muscles and many nerves involved in receiving food from the mouth, preparing that food to move from the mouth to the stomach, and moving the food to the stomach. Dysphagia occurs when there is a problem with the neural control or the structures involved in any part of the swallowing process.

Lending her clinical expertise to this research is swallowing specialist Corinne Jones, PhD, CCC-SLP, a licensed speech-language pathologist in UT Health Austin’s Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences, who is also part of UT Health Austin’s Pharyngeal High-Resolution Manometry care team.

“Most people don’t think about swallowing, but it’s actually a fairly complex sensorimotor process, and lots of things can make this process go wrong,” explains Dr. Jones. “Currently, the main way a clinician can assess these problems is by taking a video of swallowing, either through x-ray imaging or endoscopically, meaning the camera is placed up through the nose down into the throat.”

A wearable device such as the collar would allow swallowing to be evaluated outside the clinic, not only facilitating telehealth treatment, but also giving practitioners greater insight into a patient’s condition outside the context of a doctor’s appointment. “If we could put this sensor on a patient and then send them on their way for around 24 hours, we can gather information about how they’re swallowing throughout their day and even during sleep,” says Dr. Jones.

An Interdisciplinary Effort

James Sulzer, PhD, a former assistant professor in the UT Austin Department of Mechanical Engineering, initiated this project after his daughter experienced a traumatic brain injury that resulted in severe consequences impacting her cognitive and motor capabilities, including her ability to swallow. In an effort to improve treatment for his daughter and others with dysphagia, Dr. Sulzer sought to refine how doctors detected swallowing behavior. He enlisted Dr. Jones and Johnathan Chen, PhD, a professor in the UT Austin Division of Textiles and Apparel who suggested the use of a fabric-based sensor for added comfort. Other collaborators include Professor Wei Li, PhD, and graduate student David Zhang in the UT Austin Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Together, these researchers designed a collar made of elastic knit fabric that stretches in response to movement in the larynx, often referred to as the Adam’s apple, which indicates swallowing. This movement is measured by an electric current that passes through the silver-coated threads knitted into the collar and assessing the change in resistance that results from these threads stretching.

This work was supported by Texas Health Catalyst, a collaborative initiative of the Dell Medical School with the Cockrell School of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences, College of Pharmacy, and Office of Technology Commercialization at UT Austin. This program fosters technological innovations across all health care sectors, including therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices, and digital health products, by connecting scientists, clinicians, and investors to give cutting-edge ideas a better chance of impacting health outcomes. Through this program, the team is advised on their plans to bring their device to the market and will share their work with other teams.

Quality of Care, Quality of Life

Improving dysphagia care is about more than giving patients greater sensorimotor function. “Swallowing disorders impact a person’s ability to not only get nutrition and hydration, but also to participate in social events and experience comfort from the things they like to eat and drink,” says Dr. Jones. “By improving how these disorders are treated, patients will be able to live more fully.”

“One of my research aims is to capture how swallowing changes throughout the progression of Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder that gradually impacts swallowing function” Dr. Jones continues. If we can identify swallowing differences earlier on, we can get people into the clinic and doing swallowing therapy sooner, possibly preventing many of the negative outcomes associated with later stages of the disease.”

For more information about Pharyngeal High-Resolution Manometry or to make an appointment, please call 1-833-882-2737 (1-833-UT-CARES) or visit here.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.