AI Diagnoses Illness Based On the Sound of Your Voice

Voices offer lots of information. Turns out, they can even help diagnose an illness — and researchers are working on an app for that. The National Institutes of Health is funding a massive research project to collect voice data and develop an AI that could diagnose people based on their speech. Everything from your vocal cord vibrations to breathing patterns when you speak offers potential information about your health, says laryngologist Dr. Yael Bensoussan, the director of the University of South Florida’s Health Voice Center and a leader on the study.

We asked experts: Well, if you close your eyes when a patient comes in, just by listening to their voice, can you have an idea of the diagnosis they have?” Bensoussan says. “And that’s where we got all our information.”

Someone who speaks low and slowly might have Parkinson’s disease. Slurring is a sign of a stroke. Scientists could even diagnose depression or cancer. The team will start by collecting the voices of people with conditions in five areas: neurological disorders, voice disorders, mood disorders, respiratory disorders and pediatric disorders like autism and speech delays. The project is part of the NIH‘s Bridge to AI program, which launched over a year ago with more than $100 million in funding from the federal government, with the goal of creating large-scale health care databases for precision medicine.

We were really lacking large what we call open source databases,” Bensoussan says. “Every institution kind of has their own database of data. But to create these networks and these infrastructures was really important to then allow researchers from other generations to use this data.” This isn’t the first time researchers have used AI to study human voices, but it’s the first time data will be collected on this level — the project is a collaboration between USF, Cornell and 10 other institutions. “We saw that everybody was kind of doing very similar work but always at a smaller level,” Bensoussan says. “We needed to do something as a team and build a network.”

The ultimate goal is an app that could help bridge access to rural or underserved communities, by helping general practitioners refer patients to specialists. Long term, iPhones or Alexa could detect changes in your voice, such as a cough, and advise you to seek medical attention.


Love Hormone Oxytocin Delivered in a Nasal Spray Fights Obesity

Scientists suspect that one element of the obesity epidemic is that the brains of obese people respond differently to images of delicious, calorically dense foods. Obese individuals’ brains seem to light up at the sight of donuts, pizza, and other calorie bombs, even when they’re no longer hungrySome studies have suggested that this heightened activity might predispose people to overeating. Today, nearly 40 percent of American adults are obese, and obesity is predicted to become the leading cause of cancer among Americans, replacing smoking, within five or 10 years. (It’s still not clear yet which comes first—the obesity or the overactive brain activity.)

Part of the reason for the obesity epidemic is that people eat when they’re not hungry,” says Elizabeth Lawson, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a neuroendocrinologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

A remedy for this over-activation in the brain might come from an unexpected source: oxytocin, the brain chemical often associated with love and social relationships. Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love hormone” because it’s released during sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding. People who are in the early stages of falling in love have higher levels of oxytocin than normal. The drug ecstasy also increases concentrations of the hormone in the blood. Oxytocin has a variety of other surprising functions. A form of the chemical, Pitocin, induces labor, and another form might help treat stomach pain. Early studies have suggested that the hormone might boost social skills among kids with autism. Now Lawson and other researchers are investigating whether oxytocin might also prevent overeating.

Lawson and her colleagues recently showed images of high-calorie foods to 10 overweight and obese men. She found that the regions of the brain involved in eating for pleasure lit up when the men viewed the images. A dose of oxytocin, compared with a placebo, weakened the activity in those regions, and it also reduced the activity between them. Meanwhile, oxytocin didn’t have that effect when the men viewed images of low-calorie foods or household items. Lawson’s colleagues presented the research, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, last month at Endo 2019, the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting.

One of the key ways oxytocin works in limiting the amount of food that we eat is that it speeds up the satiety process, or reaching fullness,” says Pawel Olszewski, an associate professor of physiology at the University of Waikato, in New Zealand, who was not involved with Lawson’s study. “Then, oxytocin works through brain areas that are associated with the pleasure of eating, and it decreases our eating for pleasure.”


How To Detect Autism

Researchers have developed a new technique to help doctors more quickly and accurately detect autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children. In a study led by the University of Waterloo in Canada, researchers characterized how children with ASD scan a person’s face differently than a neuro-typical child. Based on the findings, the researchers were able to develop a technique that considers how a child with ASD gaze transitions from one part of a person’s face to another.

According to the developers, the use of this technology makes the diagnostic process less stressful for the children and if combined with existing manual methods could help doctors better avoid a false positive autism diagnosis.

Many people have autism, and we need early diagnosis especially in children,” said Mehrshad Sadria, a master’s student in Waterloo’s Department of Applied Mathematics. “The current approaches to determining if someone has autism are not really child-friendly. Our method allows for the diagnosis to be made more easily and with less possibility of mistakes.

The new technique can be used in all ASD diagnosis, but we believe it’s particularly effective for children.

In developing the new technique, the researchers evaluated 17 children with ASD and 23 neuro-typical children. The mean chronological ages of the ASD and neuro-typical groups were 5.5 and 4.8, respectively. Each participant was shown 44 photographs of faces on a 19-inch screen, integrated into an eye-tracking system. The infrared device interpreted and identified the locations on the stimuli at which each child was looking via emission and reflection of wave from the iris.

The images were separated into seven key areas  interest (AOIs) in which participants focussed their gaze: under the right eye, right eye, under the left eye, left eye, nose, mouth and other parts of the screen. The researchers wanted to know more than how much time the participants spent looking at each AOI, but also how they moved their eyes and scan the faces. To get that information, the researchers used four different concepts from network analysis to evaluate the varying degree of importance the children placed on the seven AOIs when exploring the facial features.


The Brain In Your Gut

From moods to memory, the brain in our guts has a big impact on the brain in our heads. Pioneering neuroscientist Associate Professor Elisa Hill-Yardin from RMIT in Australia has spent years delving deep into the gut-brain connection, an emerging field in health research. Here she shares the five critical things we should know about our “gut brain”.

The gut has similar types of neurons to the brain. The gut brain is a big nervous system, about the same size as the spinal cord, which controls the contractions of the gut and its secretions. There are very rare gene mutations that affect brain connectivity and we’ve learned that the vast majority of those gene mutations are also found in the gut. If those mutations change the wiring in the brain, they’re also likely to change the wiring and the action of the gut brain – the enteric nervous system. To date, we’ve only ever examined the effect of those mutations in the brain. Now we’re starting to look at them in our second brain, the gut.

We now know that microbes in the gut do change our mood and behaviour, and microbes even change brain activity. There’s a great study that looked at women, doing MRI brain scans and showing that if they ate yoghurt for a certain number of days their resting brain activity was different – which is amazing! But we also know from animal studies that microbes have an impact on mental health. You can breed mice that are germ free and we know that those mice show differences in their anxiety behaviours – in other words, they’re less anxious without the microbes. So you could say we’re being controlled by the microbes in our gut. They’re much more important to our feelings than we ever thought.

What’s come out in research in recent years, though it’s been known for a long time in the autism community, is that the majority of children with autism have serious gut problems. Now we don’t know the cause of autism but we do know that there are hundreds and hundreds of rare gene mutations that alter brain connectivity. And we now know that some of those mutated genes are also found in the gut. We’re also learning that diseases that affect cognition and memory, like dementia, may also have a gut component. Researchers are starting to look at traditional brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, and finding difference in the microbes in the gut. So they’re starting to think about how we can make changes in our microbes to make changes to our brain health.

The Gut-Brain Axis team that I lead at RMIT is focused on understanding how the enteric nervous system is altered in neurological disorders such as autism. This includes researching how the gut nervous system interacts with microbes in the intestine and changes in inflammatory pathways. We’re trying to identify the basic mechanisms, examining the connections between the gastrointestinal tract and changes in mood and behaviour, including the impact of genetics on microbiota in the gut. The ultimate the aim is to find novel therapies that can improve daily life for people with autism, but our work also has broader application for other neurological disorders, such Parkinson’s disease.

Many of the great enteric physiologist pioneers are in Australia and they were the first to describe different types of neurons based on their activity and neurochemical content. This work has been done on animal models, due to the possibilities of emulating human genetic diseases in these models. So, a lot of basic anatomy and physiology has been studied. But what we need now is to move the field towards using the latest sophisticated techniques and capitalising on the recent interest in the gut-brain axis, which of course involves understanding how the gastrointestinal tract works in concert with the trillions of microbes that live inside it.

Professor Elisa Hill-Yardin has presented her work to the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research