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Vocal biomarkers: the future of diagnostic medicine

Medikoe HealthTech Expert

Medikoe HealthTech Expert

  80 feet road indira nagar, Bengaluru     Feb 9, 2017

   4 min     


With an estimated 22 million Amazon Echo Smart speakers sold in 2017, the popularity of its virtual-assistant-powered device is propelling Amazon to the forefront of the smart speaker market. Leveraging the company’s voice-controlled artificial intelligence (AI) personal assistant service Alexa, Amazon is making voice recognition a reality. Speech is a powerful commodity and its application in technology offers ripe opportunities for healthcare. So where did it all start? Not long ago, scientists discovered vocal features in every way imperceptible to humans. They also found that the identification of such distinctive characteristics might have a huge impact on setting up a diagnosis. Researchers labeled these features “vocal biomarkers”

Vocal-biomarkers is a technique that enables machines to understand human emotions by analyzing, recording and detecting raw voice intonations as people speak. Vocal biomarkers are used as a non-invasive method to detect diseases by using speech characteristics. Its application is based on the fact that major psychological disorder, neurophysiologic changes, etc. affect motor control and therefore alter speech production by influencing the characteristics of the speech. “only 7 percent of a message is based on the words, while 38 percent comes from the tone of voice and 55 percent from the speaker’s body language and face”

Biomarkers in the voice of a person have been linked to disorders such as depression, coronary artery disease, and anxiety. In medicine, a biomarker is a measurable indicator of the severity or presence of some disease state. More generally a biomarker is anything that can be used as an indicator of a particular disease state or some other physiological state of an organism. The term “biomarker”, the shortened version of “biological marker” refers to medical signs, which indicate the medical state observed from outside the patient. So while patients sense symptoms, medical professionals measure biomarkers. Currently, they take into account all kinds of objective, quantifiable biomarkers ranging from biochemical, radiology markers to various health parameters. And as you could have guessed already, vocal biomarkers are medical signs deducted from the features of your voice. For chronic diseases, whose treatment may require patients to take medications for years, accurate diagnosis is particularly important, especially when strong side effects are expected from the treatment. In these cases, biomarkers are becoming more and more important, because they can confirm a difficult diagnosis or even make it possible in the first place. Several diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease or rheumatoid arthritis, often begin with an early, symptom-free phase. In such symptom-free patients, there may be more or less probability of actually developing symptoms. In these cases, biomarkers help to identify high-risk individuals. These can serve as a diagnostic tool for your physician to indicate signs of illnesses ranging from stress and depression to cardiovascular diseases. An earlier diagnosis could essentially be the difference between life and death. Instead of focusing only on biomarkers measured in blood or genomic markers analyzed by geneticists, vocal biomarkers which are easy to detect, record and analyze will be used more and more for detecting and preventing diseases.

Now, researchers are applying machine learning-based voice recognition technology, such as that developed for Amazon’s voice home-assistant, Alexa, to identify voice patterns that are specific to different neurological diseases. And, as with Alexa, people can give voice samples from the comfort of their home. The biotech companies are working to bring to market technology to monitor a patient’s health in the clinic or remotely, using smartphone apps or other wearables, with samples of voice. The hope is to use voice data to create non-invasive, inexpensive ways to track changes in symptoms and response to medication, tools called voice biomarkers. What could be simpler than telling an app what you had for breakfast?

Vocal biomarkers are tools that use voice-input to give a clear insight into a person’s health conditions. It allows non-invasive, effective and fast diagnosis unlike blood tests, MRI/CT-scans, to detect serious conditions. Various aspects of a person’s voice can help analyze the mental and physical well-being of the person. This tool has tremendous potential to turnaround diagnostic-procedures in terms of speed, accuracy, and cost-effectiveness. 

The case for voice applications in medical technology is compelling. We have become so adapted to the sound of human speech that we have neglected to consider how we could implement such a common and available resource in medical technology applications. Moreover, the voice-based diagnosis does not expose patients to radiations and therefore are safe in all other perspectives. We need more research in the field of vocal biomarkers. We also need not forget the ethical issues concerning the voice recordings.

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