Using Speech Analysis to Care for Dementia Patients

by Jeremy Hodge on August 7, 2012

One of the reasons I like working at IBM Research, is that there are many projects which have a huge impact on the world and can improve our lives. One of these projects is using speech patterns for dementia diagnosis and treatment. When I first heard about it, I thought a lot about my 87 year old grandmother who suffers from dementia. My family noticed my grandmother’s memory loss almost a decade ago and it slowly got worse over time. It wasn’t until she had a cognitive test that doctors started to treat her (which this the only way to diagnose it).

In order to make dementia diagnosis and treatment more accurate and affordable, IBM Research is working on a system that monitors the disease using speech analysis done with simple and inexpensive equipment, like a microphone or telephone. The speech analysis would be part of a system of other sensors (like accelerometers to detect falls) that could help monitor dementia patients in their own homes.

The researchers at IBM are currently focused on finding the exact correlations between speech patterns and dementia analysis. They know that changes in voice level, fluency, vocabulary richness and other voice features could be a warning sign about the diseases status. Since these patterns are very hard for just a doctor to pick up on, machine learning technology is used to identify patterns in the recordings and assess the patient’s condition.

While it’s important to detect the disease, it’s also necessary to understand what actions should be taken to manage it. To that end, the system will give patients and their family member’s guidance on how to manage the condition and provide at-home treatment. Almost 20 years ago, my grandmother’s mother was also suffering from dementia. My grandmother kept notes and observations about her mother’s condition, and wrote down questions about how to best deal with it. Unfortunately, my grandmother was unable to get answers to those questions, or any instruction for that matter on managing the disease and caring for her mother.

Now, my family is struggling with how to handle my grandmother’s dementia since there’s still so much we don’t about the disease. Hopefully, future generations will have enough information provided by these new technologies to better understand what is happening to their loved ones and respond accordingly.

The impact of this technology has tremendous potential beyond just dementia, but how we care for the worlds growing elderly population. My grandfather (who just passed away) and grandmother were lucky in that could afford to be in a assisted living facility and had my aunt and uncle, who are both doctors, close by to check on them. Yet some people aren’t so lucky and can’t afford assisted living or a nursing home, and don’t have family near by. In this case, home monitoring would be step in the right direction by providing care to those who need it, in a cost effective way.

You can read more about this project on IBM Research’s website.

Note: Even though I work at IBM, this post doesn’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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