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Company-Academic Team to Test Vocal Indicators of Cognitive Decline

Hands on lap

(congerdesign, Pixabay)

27 Feb. 2023. Researchers from a digital health company and academic medical center are beginning a pilot study of indicators in human voices for remote detection of mild cognitive decline. The team from Sonde Health Inc. and Massachusetts General Hospital, both in Boston, is funded by the Massachusetts Artificial Intelligence and Technology Center for Connected Care in Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease or MassAITC that resides at University of Massachusetts medical school, with support from National Institute on Aging, part of National Institutes of Health.

MassAITC is itself a collaboration of medical and education institutions in or near Boston that seeks to encourage innovations in artificial intelligence and information technology to meet the needs of an aging population. In Jan. 2023, MassAITC announced seven new pilot projects investigating A.I., sensing, and other technologies to better help aging individuals in their homes, particularly people with chronic health conditions and Alzheimer’s disease. Funding for the seven projects totals $1.7 million, backed by National Institute on Aging.

The Sonde Health/Mass. General study looks into voice recordings of older individuals, made in their homes, as a way to detect changes in speech and memory functions over time. Sonde Health, founded in 2015, uses human voice as a source of biomarkers, or health indicators, particularly of mental health and respiratory conditions. The company, with colleagues from Biogen Inc. and academic labs, developed a process for capturing and characterizing voice patterns with algorithms called the Voiceome protocol, described in a preprint paper, not yet peer-reviewed, posted in Aug. 2021.

Voice recordings of older individuals at home

The Voiceome protocol identifies 12 types of voice tasks associated with health and demographic issues shown to affect speech, and is based on a data set of voice samples from 1,382 participants completing two surveys, each recording four samples about three weeks apart. The Voiceome study continues with the goal of enrolling 10,000 to 100,000 participants, and its data and code are available through GitHub.

In the new project, Sonde Health is partnering with the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit at Mass. General, affiliated with Harvard Medical School, to assess the feasibility of capturing voice recordings of older individuals in their homes to monitor speech and cognitive functions over time. The team plans to enroll 50 participants, age 55 or older, representing a range of cognitive capabilities from normal cognition through mild dementia. Participants will provide 10 to 15 voice samples in either a lab environment or at home using their smartphones. The recordings will the be analyzed to associate acoustic features with cognitive status, and help construct tools for tracking cognitive health.

An overriding objective of the project is to evaluate the technology for implementation in the home by the target audience, rather than traveling to a clinic. “Digital technologies, and digital biomarkers in particular,” says Sonde Health CEO David Liu in a company statement released through BusinessWire, “have great potential to support this shift. By monitoring cognitive health from afar through vocal biomarkers, Sonde’s technology could help facilitate this desire to ‘age in place,’ offering these patients the ability to remain in a familiar environment without sacrificing quality care.”

Deepak Ganesan, director of MassAITC, adds, “As the population of older adults continues to grow, there is a critical need for remote monitoring technologies that can detect cognitive impairment early and accurately.”

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