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Sunday Seniors: Researchers turn to technology to detect dementia

  • Amazon, along with a host of other technology companies, is working on ways to use its smart speaker devices to bring a range of health care services into your home. (Grant Hindsley/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) TNS — Grant Hindsley

Valley News Calendar Editor
Published: 2/8/2020 10:32:19 PM
Modified: 2/8/2020 10:36:56 PM

LEBANON — Voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home can do everything from remotely turning on lights to keeping a to-do list.

Now, researchers led by Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the University of Massachusetts Boston are hoping the voice assistant systems, which often rely on smart speakers to take verbal commands, can help people do something else: Pick up on early verbal signs of cognitive decline.

“The sooner that you identify that there may be a problem the sooner you can implement a plan of care,” said Dr. John Batsis, a geriatrician and associate professor at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.

Batsis, Robert Roth, PhD, a D-H neuropsychologist and associate professor of psychiatry at Geisel, and Xiaohui Liang, an assistant professor of computer science from UMass Boston, were recently awarded a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging to further study the ability of voice assistants to gather information about users’ speech patterns to analyze them for indicators of cognitive decline.

There are two phases to the study and the first is set to begin soon. It involves recruiting 90 adults age 65 and older: 30 who have no known or perceived memory or cognitive issues, 30 with documented dementia and 30 who have a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment. The participants will read from a script and be recorded at D-H’s Aging Resource Center in Lebanon. Those interested in participating should email or call 603-653-3488.

“We’ll have them interact with the Alexa and we’ll be able to capture their voices or their voice patterns,” Batsis explained. Participants will also be given a memory test and other assessments.

In the second phase of the project, 30 participants, which could include participants from the first phase, will have an Alexa device in their homes for 28 months. The goal is to launch phase two in the fall.

“That would record their voice patterns and their speech patterns in a real-world setting,” Batsis said. “The hope here is we would have their data at baseline when they enter, then we’d be able to see ‘are their changes within their voice patterns?’ ”

Researchers will be looking at the complexity, accuracy, lexicon and fluency of the language that participants in the study use, said Brian MacWhinney, a professor of cognitive psychology, computational linguistics and modern languages at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who is a collaborator on the project.

Complexity looks at the makeup of the sentence. Accuracy includes mispronouncing words. Lexicon refers to the reduced use of words that aren’t part of everyday speech.

“Sometimes people just go back to the very, very, basic English vocabulary,” MacWhinney said.

Fluency includes false starts and pauses while speaking.

“You don’t just look for one thing. You look for a combination of those things,” he said. “One of the big things is that people use pronouns instead of nouns. They use these very generic forms of verbs and nouns.”

The goal of the study is not to find a cure for dementia, but to help patients get treatment earlier on.

“What we know is early planning is of paramount importance to the family and the patient and the clinical team,” Batsis said, adding that systems like advanced directives can be put in place “when the patient is able to make their decisions.”

The technology would not be a substitute for the care provided by health care providers.

“The hope of this project is not to take over a clinician’s role by any means,” Batsis said. “From my end, I see folks in clinic and patients in clinic and often they present with memory changes, but later than we would like as clinicians.”

While there’s a stereotype out there that senior citizens avoid or are uncomfortable with technological devices, that’s not necessarily the case, Batsis said.

“What we can say is that, when you look at the trends over the last five years, older adults are really the fastest-growing user group,” Batsis said. “There is a comfort level.”

All data collected from the study will be kept private and secure.

“We want to assure our patient participants that this is done under the auspices of a research study,” Batsis said. “We’re militant about privacy and confidentiality.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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