Babies who score low on an initial voice analysis test would be further evaluated to determine what kinds of intervention, if any, they should receive. These tests would make autism screens more accessible than the one-on-one time with a trained clinician that’s currently needed. But the real promise of screening with vocal analysis tests lies in their simplicity and affordability, Ramsay says: “It’s just not possible to screen every child at risk with a $5,000 assessment.” The vocal recorder Ramsay uses, by comparison, costs just $10. “I basically can reach anybody the USPS guy can reach,” he says.
Diagnosing Depression and Dementia
Vocal screens could also help adults at risk for cognitive or psychiatric disorders who face similar challenges. For instance, researchers at IBM Research in Haifa, Israel, are developing a five-minute screening tool that uses voice recordings and computer analysis to identify people with mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to dementia.
In pilot studies in France and Greece, the tool pinpointed patients with confirmed mild cognitive impairment 80 percent of the time. The team recently launched a larger study in which participants will perform more vocal tasks to strengthen the technology.
Voice analysis could also help spot signs of relapse in those with psychiatric illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, says Brita Elvevåg, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Tromsø in Norway. Elvevåg is developing voice analysis software that can tell if patients’ mental states are worsening. If it detects a combination of telltale vocal changes — such as a patient talking faster or at a different pitch, or speaking less coherently — it would alert a health care provider.
At Risk and Nowhere to Go
But even if Ramsay successfully identifies babies showing signs of autism, the next step isn’t obvious. “How do we go about putting in place support for families when there is no treatment [for very young children] yet?” he asks.
Fortunately, researchers are piloting early intervention programs. Connie Kasari, an educational psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, meets twice a week with families with children 12 to 21 months old who are at risk of autism. She encourages healthy skills, such as pointing or making eye contact. After two months, one 12-month-old boy who rarely smiled, vocalized or made eye contact with his parents said his first words, and his parents felt they could more easily interact with him. But the results need to be replicated, and Kasari isn’t comfortable saying she prevented the boy from developing autism. If Ramsay can identify very early vocal warning signs, however, such early interventions hold considerable promise.
Ramsay plays me one more recording of the now 12-month-old baby boy. “Buuuh-bee,” he says. “Baby,” says his mom. “Baby,” he repeats with perfect clarity. Ramsay suspects this mom, at least, has little reason to worry.
[This article originally appeared in print as "Altered Voices."]