Phone Voice Recordings to Help in Parkinson's Study

April 24, 2014

Smartphones have revolutionized everyday communications, but there could be far more stunning uses – such as in healthcare – of the technology when combined with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) call recordings.

Here is one application: Doctors know that about 6.3 million people globally have Parkinson's disease, but many have never been diagnosed. There are no blood tests to show someone has the disorder, which degenerates the central nervous system. Now, healthcare providers use objective symptom tests. These can be expensive and time-consuming.

But a new testing method is being developed by the Parkinson's Voice Initiative. Because a patient’s voice is impacted by Parkinson's, the new test for symptoms uses voice recordings. The hypothesis is that it is possible to detect Parkinson's disease through recordings made via phone calls—meaning that patients in remote and hard-to-reach areas could get the diagnoses they need.

The Parkinson's Voice Initiative wanted to record some 10,000 voices of those with the illness, as well as those who did not have it. People with Parkinson's tend to show speech patterns which show fluctuations, tremors, shifts in timbre, and breathiness. Max Little, a British mathematician and visiting professor at MIT, is now analyzing the recordings. Some 17,000 people – those with the illness and those without – recorded their voices for the project.  Little is using the results to come up with a way to analyze voices automatically in connection with the illness.

There are many benefits with voice-based tests. “Voice-based tests are as accurate as clinical tests…They can be administered remotely, and patients can do the tests themselves. Also, they are high speed (take less than 30 seconds), and are ultra low cost (they don't involve expert staff time),” the initiative explained in a statement.

During a call, patients got simple instructions on making vocal sounds. They were asked if they were ever diagnosed with Parkinson's, their gender, and their age.

Researchers are confident that voice tests made via phones will be adequate to help out their study. “We have shown that this detection is possible with lab-quality digital audio recordings of sustained phonations, and that these results are not noticeably degraded when the audio is passed through simulated, low-bandwidth mobile telephone audio compression with channel distortion,” the initiative said.

Looking ahead, there are more options for those wondering if they have Parkinson’s. "We would envisage something like a phone system where people could call in," Little said in an interview reported on by Fast Coexist. "Then, it could be used as an indication of whether they need to go for a checkup or not." The initial phone diagnosis would take just seconds, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

In addition, the analysis of the voice algorithms could help doctors follow the progression of the disease – and voice recordings could be kept and compared over time.

The initiative also recently announced that it is partnering with PatientsLikeMe and Sage Bionetworks to gather voice and other data on Parkinson's.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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