Despite raised awareness of Parkinson's disease, due in part to the efforts of famous sufferers such as Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox; it has not become any easier in recent years to diagnose the condition. With no blood or laboratory tests, the disease is presently diagnosed using medical history and neurological examination. Since the tests are time-consuming, expensive and must take place at a clinic, experts believe that as many as a fifth of Parkinson’s sufferers will never be diagnosed.
But the telltale symptoms, such as quaver, softer speech, breathiness, hoarseness, often appear early in the voice. That is why Max Little, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, has appealed to people worldwide to help him test his computer program called the Parkinson’s Voice Institute, which he believes can help diagnose Parkinson’s disease. The initiative is a quarter of the way through its 10,000-person goal.
At the TEDglobal conference, Little discussed how he and his colleagues used their program to analyze 263 recordings of 43 people asked to sustain “ah” sounds. After the algorithm was trained to recognize 10 impairments in the recordings, it was able to diagnose Parkinson’s disease in participants 99 percent of the time.
The call is no longer than three minutes. A casual voice guides callers through various questions. One portion of the test asks listeners to simply take a deep breath and say “ah” for as long as possible, (though this reporter found it problematic – the recording repeated the question in the middle of my word). Another section asks the callers to repeat sentences after the recording.
Parkinson's disease is a collection of motor system disorders, with the primary symptoms being tremors; trembling in the hands, arms, legs, jaw and face; rigidity of the limbs or torso; slowness of movement; and impaired balance and coordination. It mainly is diagnosed in people over the age of 50, and the affliction is generally lifelong and progressive. Six million people are diagnosed with the disorder.
The Parkinson’s voice initiative is available in seven countries, including the United States, Brazil, and the United Kingdom. The number to call can be found here. Callers do not need to have Parkinson’s disease, or believe that they have Parkinson’s disease, to participate.