Health TEDTalks

How you can help Max Little create a new test for Parkinson’s — and what’s next

Posted by: Ben Lillie

In today’s TEDTalk, Max Little tells you about a test — now in trials — that could help diagnose Parkinson’s disease with a 30-second phone call. But the first challenge: He and his team needed to record 10,000 voices from across the world to make sure that the technique is accurate and scientifically valid.

In late June, when he announced the trial, 600 people called in during the first eight hours. Now, just over a month later, they’ve got 75% of the phone calls they need for their data set. And you can help: Visit ParkinsonsVoice.org to be part of the data for the test trial.

How does the test work? Parkinson’s affects muscle function, including the muscles in the vocal cords, and people with the disease generally display characteristic properties in the voice. Little’s insight: An algorithm should be able to detect those vocal properties over the phone.

The first application is obvious — enabling cheaper, earlier, more accessible diagnosis of an incurable disease that affects 6.3 million people worldwide.

Reached by email, Little explained, “Among poorer communities who have little in the way of health care resources, the awareness of Parkinson’s is low, and many people go undiagnosed and untreated.” Using a call-in system they “can very rapidly detect those who appear to be at high risk and concentrate scarce clinical resources on those picked out by voice-based algorithms.”

In the future, Little and his team are exploring further applications.

“Another tantalizing possibility is that vocal disturbances might be among the first symptoms of the disease,” said Little, quickly adding that the evidence for that is currently low, but that the creation of a massive database allows them to explore the question.

Finally, could a call-in system be used for other diseases?

It’s possible, says Little, who is putting together a research program to test patients with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease, or motor neuron disease), MS (multiple sclerosis), MSA (multiple system atrophy), ET (essential tremor) and other diseases.

As always with research, the team won’t know if the program works until they try it, but it’s an exciting new direction for diagnosis.