Scientists say the way you speak could help diagnose a range of conditions

Too strong, too common, too chic, too mouse? Some of us may worry about what our voice says about us.

But soon it could be a lifeline, giving doctors vital clues as to whether we’re at risk for Parkinson’s disease, heart disease or even Alzheimer’s disease.

In the latest breakthrough, doctors have used short speech recordings to assess whether people are at risk of heart attacks caused by clogged arteries.

Cardiologists from the Mayo Clinic in the United States told the American College of Cardiology conference last month how their study of more than 100 patients showed that an artificial intelligence computer program can accurately predict disease. coronary – a buildup of plaque in the arteries of the heart. — by analyzing three 30-second clips of patient voices.

Too strong, too common, too chic, too mouse? Some of us may worry about what our voice says about us. But soon it could be a lifeline, giving doctors vital clues as to whether we’re at risk for Parkinson’s disease, heart disease or even Alzheimer’s disease. A stock image is used above

The computer received 10,000 voice samples from patients with coronary heart disease. From these, he learned to detect problems in 80 tell-tale characteristics of patients’ voices, such as changes in frequency, pitch, volume and phrasing that are so subtle they cannot be picked up by the human ear.

The 108 patients in the study, all scheduled to undergo coronary angiography (an X-ray that assesses the condition of the arteries in the heart), were asked to record samples of themselves reading a prepared text.

Those whom the computer algorithm classified as “high risk” for heart disease also had angiograms suggesting they were more than twice as likely to suffer from heart problems as those classified as “low risk”.

Over the next two years, nearly 60% of high-risk patients were admitted to hospital for chest pain or heart attacks, compared with 30% of those with low-risk speech.

Scientists don’t know why certain vocal characteristics may indicate heart disease. One theory is that it has to do with the autonomic nervous system – the part that controls bodily processes we don’t consciously think about, including heart rate and speech.

Since the same system controls both of these functions, it is possible for heart problems to somehow send subtly audible ripples through our speech.

Those whom the computer algorithm classified as

Those the computer algorithm classified as ‘high risk’ for heart disease also had angiograms suggesting they were more than twice as likely to suffer from heart problems as those classified as ‘low risk’

A similar system is being tested in the Netherlands to detect early signs of dementia. The project, at the Alzheimer Center in Amsterdam, asks elderly people to record their voices on smartphones and send them for analysis by a computer algorithm.

The algorithm detects subtle changes in pitch, clarity and language habits, such as the use of simple verbs and slight pronunciation errors, which can be among the very first indicators of dementia.

Meanwhile, Italian researchers are using speech algorithms to detect Parkinson’s disease – already known to cause hypokinetic dysarthria, where speech is soft, monotonous and lacks articulation.

In February, scientists in Rome reported in the journal Frontiers in Neurology how their study of more than 200 elderly people showed that the computer algorithm could detect the disease even in people who did not yet have symptoms.

John Rubin, consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon and head of the voice disorders unit at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, says voice research has great potential.

“People have long been interested in using voice to make diagnoses,” he says. “Since the 1970s, research has identified that people can reasonably well identify a person’s age by hearing them speak. This is where this type of research began.

A 2016 study at Nottingham Trent University found that most people can decode cues about other people’s health, height and age, all by listening to their voice. The researchers said voice analysis could be an evolutionary trait to help us choose a suitable mate.

The voice can even give clues to a woman’s fertility, according to a 2019 study from James Madison University in Virginia, published in Evolutionary Psychology.

He recorded women counting from one to ten once a week for four weeks and played them to male volunteers. The voice of a woman at the height of her fertility was perceived to be so sexy that the sound of her simply counting numbers caused male listeners’ testosterone levels to rise.

Dr. Melanie Shoup-Knox, a psychologist who led the study, says there could be a physical explanation for the subtle fertility-related changes in female speech.

“The larynx is particularly sensitive to sex hormones,” she says. “These can promote or obstruct vocal clarity, depending on the level of hormones.”

Speaking clearly can also make a woman more attractive, according to scientists from the University of California at Irvine and the University of Utah, who found that men rate women’s voices 73% more attractive if they speak loudly. enunciated with a high degree of intelligibility.

But it only works with women, says Dr. Daniel Stehr, a psychologist who co-authored the study. Men, he says, can get away with mumbling, and bad diction can even make them more masculine.

And while a deep voice in a man can be perceived as sexually attractive, research suggests it has little to do with fertility.

“In contrast, males whose voices were judged to be more attractive and lower tended to have lower sperm concentrations in their ejaculate,” evolutionary biologists from the University of Western Australia warned in the journal PLoS One in 2011.

Whether you’re tenor or bass, articulate or mumbled, the past two years of pandemic shutdowns and social isolation have taken their toll on our voices, say researchers at Trinity College Dublin.

They asked 1,575 people about the number of times they had suffered from a hoarse voice or vocal tract discomfort since the first coronavirus lockdown.

Writing in the Journal of Voice at the end of 2020, they attributed a huge increase in the use of video calls to the fact that 85% of respondents complained of sore throats and hoarseness since the start of the pandemic.

As Mr. Rubin explains: “Since the onset of the pandemic, many of us have come to rely on Zoom or similar to communicate. We talk to each other from rooms with different acoustics. It makes things different and we can force our voices to speak louder.

“We also often sit slouched and bent over the computer, which is not good posture and can impact the health of our voices. If we want to take care of our voices, the answer is to stay physically fit, by doing something like going for a brisk walk three or four times a week.

“What we eat and drink is also important. Acid reflux can damage your vocal cords, so if that’s a problem, it’s best not to eat spicy and fatty foods. And we must hydrate ourselves, with two to three liters of liquid per day, consumed regularly during this period.


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