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The Neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro is examining the speech patterns of children and adolescents with a multidisciplinary team. in order to facilitate the earlier diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. Intelligent algorithms help the team to analyse these patterns faster and more precisely.

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Deciphering
hidden signs

Using artificial intelligence and advanced computational methods, an international academic research team, in collaboration with Boehringer Ingelheim, analyses speech patterns in order to assess whether adolescents are at risk of developing mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.

Sidarta Ribeiro counts words, chops up sentences into their individual elements and shuffles texts into new texts. A reader seeking to decipher the chaotic-looking results of this word puzzle on Ribeiro’s screen would probably consider this pointless and quickly give up. “This is a key part of our project,” explains Ribeiro. “Here, we are interested less in the contents of the texts than in the structure of the interplay of words.”

Words, syllables, sentences: for the researcher these are primarily data which he can use to feed the intelligent software. The algorithms of this speech detection tool identify patterns and logical contexts in words, sounds and syllables that elude the human ear and eye.

The data that the Brazilian neuroscientist evaluates with a multidisciplinary team come from recordings of conversations which psychologists have conducted with trial participants on the basis of a specific system of questions. “Doctors ask the participants to discuss their most recent dreams, for example,” explains Dr Michael Sand, who is responsible for several central nervous system (CNS) clinical programmes at Boehringer Ingelheim. Participants are also asked to describe certain images with emotional context.

The members of Ribeiro's research group, use a specifically designed research software to evaluate the recordings of these conversations. “Studies of schizophrenia patients have shown that the illness is reflected in their speech patterns,” Sand remarks. A change in intonation and a decrease in the level of complexity in their speech may be early signs of the disease.

Boehringer Ingelheim and the research group now plan to use these findings to support early diagnosis of the illness. “In people predisposed to this illness, the onset of schizophrenia typically occurs no earlier then during adolescence”, Ribeiro comments. He adds: “Schizophrenia is an illness which gets worse as time goes by”. But if it is diagnosed early and properly treated, the process may be slowed down or even stopped.

Ribeiro is optimistic that doctors will in the near future already be able to make reliable predictions for risk groups – with the aid of the intelligent software he also uses in his research. While it used to take days or weeks to analyse speech patterns, now all that it requires is a small number of clicks and a few seconds. “We have become much faster thanks to digitalisation,” says Ribeiro. “Hopefully this will soon benefit a lot of people who are at risk of developing the illness.”

Sidarta Ribeiro uses intelligent software to analyse logical relationships in words, sounds and syllables.