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Voice Indicators to Monitor Dementia Progression

Brain circuits illustration

(HypnoArt, Pixabay)

9 July 2019. A company developing diagnostics for cognitive disorders from changes in speech patterns is partnering on vocal biomarkers to track progression of a form of dementia. Financial and intellectual property details of the agreement between Winterlight Labs Inc. in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and the biotechnology enterprise Alector in South San Francisco, California were not disclosed.

Winterlight Labs is identifying indicators of disease progression for frontotemporal dementia or FTD, a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. FTD is marked by a gradual decline in behavior or language, similar to dementia, but usually not affecting memory. People with FTD often find it difficult to plan or organize activities, engage in social interactions, behave appropriately in professional situations, or care for oneself. According to the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration, another name for the disease, the progression of symptoms in behavior or language can vary from 2 to 20 years, and according to Alector it affects 50,000 to 60,000 people in the U.S.

Winterlight is a four year-old company that employs computational linguistics, machine learning, and neuroscience to assess cognitive health, such as memory and reasoning. The company’s main product is a tablet-based system that analyzes hundreds of short segments from a person’s speech to discover underlying indicators of cognitive decline. The technology is designed for use in clinical trials, as well as in senior care facilities, to detect the earliest indicators of cognitive decline, often before noticeable symptoms occur and when interventions may have more beneficial effects.

Alector is a biotechnology company developing treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like FTD that invoke the immune system. The company’s treatments are designed to repair genetic mutations responsible for malfunctions in the immune system allowing neurological disorders to take hold, and thus enable the immune system to counteract progression of the disorder.

One of the company’s lead therapy candidates is code-named AL001, a targeted synthetic antibody to increase production of a protein called progranulin that regulates immune activity in the brain, and associated with FTD, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. In April, the company reported on an early-stage clinical trial of AL001 that shows the treatment achieved a dose-dependent increase in progranulin in healthy volunteers, without causing serious drug-related adverse effects.

Winterlight Labs and Alector are collaborating on two projects. The first study is using Winterlight’s speech-based biomarkers to follow people with FTD for one year. During that time, participants’ cognitive conditions are assessed through the company’s tablet app, to lessen the need for clinic visits.

Early data from the study, says Winterlight, show people with primary progressive aphasia, a variation of FTD, express themselves with simpler words and grammar than people of similar ages in a comparison group without the disorder. Data from this first project are expected to help design end-points or treatment efficacy targets for a mid-stage clinical trial of Alector’s AL001.

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