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Diagnosing Neuromuscular Disorders from Speech Patterns: An Interview with Dr. Antje Mefferd of VUMC

Morgan Lindstead | March 8, 2023
Dr. Antje Mefferd

Dr. Antje Mefferd (Ph.D., M.D.) grew up in a town near Leipzig in East Germany. After studying speech-language pathology in Germany, she moved to the U.S., where she got her Master’s and Doctorate degrees. Dr. Mefferd came to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in 2014, where she is now an assistant professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences teaching speech acoustics and perception classes. She now continues her research on speech pathology and kinematics at VUMC. 

What made you interested in speech pathology?

I became interested in speech pathology because it combined my interests in language, linguistics, and medicine. Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) can work in hospitals alongside medical providers but from a therapeutic standpoint and treat patients with speech, language, or swallowing problems. I knew working with people and working on a therapeutic level one-on-one with someone is what I wanted to do, and it felt really good to be the person able to counsel, comfort, and give advice to patients and families struggling with these diseases and try to help improve their quality of life.

Your lab focuses on speech movements with communication disorders resulting from degenerative neuromuscular diseases. Can you tell me a bit about your research and what you’re currently working on?

While I worked as a speech therapist, I was frustrated that I couldn’t do more to help patients with movement disorders. Although I provided whatever aid I could, I wasn’t confident that it was enough to really help them, especially with patients who had paralysis. I often had to just hope that they would miraculously get better. There were not enough resources or research at the time that I could learn from that could tell me what I needed to do to help these patients. But now, as a researcher, I feel like I can do more to help. 

My current project involves comparing different movement disorders by analyzing their similarities and differences. The treatment options we currently have for movement disorders are all the same. We aren’t distinguishing between if a patient has Parkinson’s, ALS, or Multiple Sclerosis. We give patients the same universal treatment for all of them, even though we assume from a conceptual standpoint that they all have different underlying issues. The main purposes of this study are to define and characterize similarities and differences across patients and in comparing these diseases to one another, to determine how we can expect the patients to respond to the different treatment options, and to discern how we can adjust current treatment methods to be more effective for specific speech disorders.

What do you see as practical applications of your research in the future?

There are many different clinical applications to what we are doing in the lab. Our data is directly translational to the clinicians in aiding with the diagnoses of these neuromuscular disorders. Another application is in measuring the progression of these diseases. Because these are progressive diseases, there will come a time when the patient will lose the ability to speak and they will have to learn to speak with the assistance of computer technology. Currently, we have a lot of trouble predicting how much time people have left with their speech capabilities still intact. I’m hoping to use our findings to better determine the progression of these diseases in terms of the motor functions related to speech and give patients a better answer on when they can expect to lose their speaking abilities.

You’re also an assistant professor at VUMC where you teach courses about speech acoustics and perception. Can you talk to me a bit about your experience teaching?

When you hear the word “professor,” the first thing you think about is teaching other students in a classroom setting. Still, there are other aspects of teaching, such as teaching research skills in a lab setting and giving back to the profession through reading manuscripts, organizing and speaking at conferences, reviewing grants, and helping to progress the field. I really enjoy the research aspect associated with teaching, both in the sense that I can help teach students research skills and also in reviewing grants and getting to help others with their ideas and get excited about them. 

What advice would you give to students hoping to pursue a research career?

You don’t have to have an area of research in mind to know that you want to pursue a research career. If you find research exciting but you’re not really sure what you want to research, find a mentor who you feel you can really get along with and admire. Then, just go along with them and see if you like that kind of research and can get excited about it. If you do find yourself excited about the topic, then just continue with that area of research and find a way to make your own contributions to the field. That’s kind of what happened to me. I never would have thought that I would study speech because it wasn’t something that really stood out to me from a content perspective, but I was drawn to the faculty member at the University doing this kind of research, and I really felt like he had a lot to teach and I had a lot to learn.