New machine-learning model can detect dementia in speech

The tool can be used for early diagnosis.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Speech patterns could indicate dementia.jpg
Speech patterns could indicate dementia.


Scientists have conceived of a machine-learning model capable of detecting speech patterns that are linked to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The new tool will be used for early evaluation of the conditions.

This is according to a report by Global News published on Saturday..

“We’re interested in looking at speech in particular as a window into the human mind, so to speak,” said Zehra Shah, a University of Alberta graduate student and lead researcher involved in the new project.

“The idea here is we want to look at speech as a potential biomarker in order to be able to identify patterns that might help us diagnose and monitor psychiatric disorders such as Alzheimer’s dementia.”

There are three features that indicate signs of dementia: pauses in speech, word length or complexity, and speech intelligibility.

“For dementia patients, because there might be a need for more recall, they tend to forget words and they need a certain amount of time to recall those words, so there will be longer pauses,” Shah explained.

“A longer word, we assume, will have a higher degree of speech complexity rather than shorter words like ‘uh’ and ‘the.’

“Longer word duration … is a proxy for speech complexity,” she added. “Again, the hypothesis here is that dementia patients would have lower speech complexity compared to healthy controls.”

Tests were conducted on 237 English-speaking individuals and 46 Greek-speaking individuals. Approximately half were dementia patients and the second half were a control population.

A high accuracy

The model was found to work with 70-75 percent accuracy.

“It’s like a support tool for clinical diagnosis,” Shah said. “But we don’t foresee this tool to be a diagnostic tool in and of itself. It would need a human in the loop.”

“It’s the first point, triaging, screening for potentially at-risk populations to see where they are at this point in time and possibly flagging any higher-risk individuals in this category and asking them to look into further screening.”

Although it’s too early for the new model to replace clinical diagnosis it can allow anyone with a smartphone to evaluate their risk of developing dementia-related diseases.

Shah sees the future of the model in the shape of a mobile-friendly app.

“Which would not be monitoring continuously but you can open the app and speak into it. For example, you could have the app ask you on a daily basis: ‘How is your day going?’ and the person just responds in a spontaneous manner and the app could, in the background, potentially look at features in your speech to see how it’s changed,” she told Global News.