Sound communication

Artificial bird voices may improve throat surgery

When performing surgery on a patient with throat cancer, it is crucial to know exactly where to operate in order to preserve the patient's voice in the best possible way. New SDU research into bird voices shows the path to the least harmful intervention.

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 5/27/2020

The voices of virds and humans work much the same way, so birds can be used as a great model to study the human voice production and control.
Biologist Coen Elemans from the University of Southern Denmark, SDU, does just that.

As part of this work he has, together with colleagues from Odense University Hospital and the University of Maine in the USA, created an advanced computer model that can calculate and predict the production of sound, based only on the anatomy and the physical properties of the vocal cords.

– Our model is a first in-depth test of this novel generation of computational models that are very computationally intensive. Because it is next to impossible to test such models on humans, we used birds where we can accurately measure all the important features in single individuals, says Coen Elemans and continues:

The model can be used to calculate how a person's voice might change if a surgical procedure is needed. If you have cancer in the larynx, for example, it will often be necessary to remove the vocal cords. Here you can make a realistic calculation of the various possible interventions and find the intervention that gives the patient the least stressful voice changes.

Coen Elemans, associate professor in biology

The study has published in the scientific journal, PNAS.

Coen Elemans estimates that the model may also be used in biomechanical, evolutionary biological and neurological research.

In recent years, Coen Elemans and his colleagues at SDU have studied six different bird species from five orders of magnitude. The smallest species, the zebra finch, weighs only 15 grams, while the largest, the ostrich, weighs 200 kg.

All the birds studied were found to use the same mechanism as humans. The mechanism is called the myoelastic aerodynamic theory (MEAD mechanism).

Meet the researcher

Coen Elemans is an associate professor at the Department of Biology. His research revolves around the interaction between the brain and auditory organs when animals produce sounds.