Led by Dr. Max Little, researchers at MIT have developed a computer program that can detect tremors, breathiness and weakness in the voice. These subtle changes in the movement of vocal chords are among the earliest indicators of Parkinson’s disease. In initial tests, the computer program has shown a 99% accuracy rate in detecting the disease itself as well as remarkable precision in identifying how far the disease has progressed. With such promising initial results, Dr. Little and the Parkinson’s Voice Initiative are looking to extend research to voice recordings taken over the telephone.
The current approach to identifying if a person has Parkinson’s is complex and not always reliable—it can take years and there is no blood test to detect it. Thus, this new technology is a particularly exciting prospect. Should the Parkinson’s Voice Initiative find the same results using voice recordings from a brief telephone call, the program could become a quick and cost-effective diagnostic tool—one that doesn’t require a trip to the doctor’s office—allowing doctors to intervene early in the disease. The team hopes to build a database of at least 10,000 voices and is seeking both healthy volunteers as well as patients with Parkinson’s from across the world. The phone calls generally last only three minutes and volunteers are asked to say “aah,” say a few sentences and answer several questions. While not a cure, the ability to detect the disease early can greatly improve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.