Sonde Health will use MIT voice analysis tech to detect mental health conditions

By Jonah Comstock
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Boston-based Sonde Health, a recent spin-out of PureTech Health, has licensed a health-focused voice scanning technology from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories. 

The technology, developed by Thomas Quatieri, detects a range of mental health conditions from biomarkers in a person’s voice. In pilot studies, it has shown promise in measuring symptoms of depression, mild traumatic brain injury, concussion, cognitive impairment and Parkinson’s Disease.

“When you produce speech, it’s one of the most complex biological functions that we do as people,” Jim Harper, co-founder and COO of Sonde, told MobiHealthNews. “It requires incredible coordination of multiple brain circuits, large areas of the brain, coordinated very closely with the musculoskeletal system, … and it's also involved with the respiratory system, which is required to activate the vocal chords. What we’ve learned is that changes in the physiological state associated with each of these systems can be reflected in measurable, objective features that are acoustics in the voice. So we’re really measuring not what people are saying, in the way Siri does, we’re focusing on how you’re saying what you’re saying and that gives us a path to really be able to do pervasive monitoring that can still provide strong privacy and security.”

Sonde is considering using the technology in a variety of contexts. In the first generation, users will read a text selection or respond to questions and that particular sample will be analyzed using the technology. In future generations, the technology will be deployed as a passive monitor on a user’s phone, but will be designed to isolate the biomarkers in realtime without having to actually record the content of the user’s speech.

“Broadly, because of the breadth of conditions that can impact the voice, we’re looking at Sonde as a platform technology,” Harper said. “But of course, within that we will be tailoring it and looking at a range of specific conditions. The focus here is creating for the first time the ability to objectively measure patients. Most of the measures today are self-report, interviews, they involve a fair amount of subjectivity. If we can create, using this technology, objective measures that could measure these characteristics in a large-scale way, this will lend itself to a number of use cases ranging from clinical trials to clinical practice.”

PureTech Health is a Boston-based firm that invests in early stage technologies and builds companies around them. It has a theme-driven approach that first identifies problems and then builds up technology with the potential to solve them. 

Sonde’s involvement with PureTech also gave them access to an impressive board of advisors, including Dr. Maurizio Fava, Director of the Division of Clinical Research of the Massachusetts General Hospital Research Institute; Aimee Danielson, director of the Women’s Mental Health Program at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital; Walgreens CMO Dr. Harry Leider; Helen Christensen, director and Chief Scientist at the Black Dog Institute; Stanford University Psychology Chair Ian Gotlib; and Julian Epps, a researcher who has published significant work on speech analysis.

“The ability to help recognize early signs of psychiatric illness and monitor treatment responses on devices that people already own is an important step in moving from reactive to preventive care,” Danielson said in a statement. “This would be particularly useful in conditions that are chronically underdiagnosed, like perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, including postpartum depression, and in other mental health and central nervous system disorders where there is a lack of objective and reliable screening and monitoring technologies.” 

There aren’t too many companies in the passive monitoring space, but one well-known player is Ginger.io, a San Francisco-based startup that raised $20 million in January 2015. Ginger.io offers a smartphone app that passively collects data from users’ phones including information on their movement throughout the day, call patterns, and texting patterns. This technology can be used in the treatment of mental health conditions, but the behavior patterns Ginger.io tracks can also be used to monitor chronic conditions like heart disease.