Changes to speech could diagnose Parkinson’s earlier

Muscle stiffness, tremors and balance problems are the most widely recognised symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but picking up on another sign could lead to an earlier diagnosis. Researchers at Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania believe altered speech could be the first physical change in many patients.

Parkinson’s is the result of nerve cells dying in the area of the brain that produces dopamine and is partly responsible for coordinating the movement of the body. As more cells are lost, the condition worsens and completing day-to-day tasks independently becomes increasingly difficult.

While the decline in motor activity for Parkinson’s patients is well documented, the vocal cords, diaphragm and lungs are also affected. This is why altered speech could be one of the first signs a person is suffering from the disease, experts now believe, highlighting it as an area to be vigilant about.

Professor Virgilijus Ulozas, who was involved in the Kaunas study, explained how the changes could be fairly subtle. He said that someone with early stage Parkinson’s may start to speak more quietly, while monotonous, less expressive, slower and more fragmented speech could also occur.

As symptoms like muscle stiffness usually don’t present until 80 per cent of the nerve cells have been lost, an early diagnosis of Parkinson’s is rare. There’s no conclusive test to determine if a person has the condition, so opportunities to start controlling it quickly are missed.

The team from Lithuania used AI to study samples of speech from 61 patients with Parkinson's and 43 healthy participants. After both groups were recorded speaking in a soundproof booth, an AI algorithm analysed the differences. The researchers are now working to see if the technology could be used to create an app for diagnosing the disease.

Rytis Maskeliunas, a data scientist at Kaunas University of Technology, said: “We are not creating a substitute for a routine examination of the patient – our method is designed to facilitate early diagnosis of the disease and to track the effectiveness of treatment.”

Current estimates suggest approximately 145,000 people in the UK and 500,000 in the US have Parkinson's. Among the most well-known are Michael J Fox, Billy Connolly and Jeremy Paxman.

Photo credit: Pexels/RODNAE Productions

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