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Covid symptoms may hide in speech

Signal processing reveals that patients speak differently before any other signs are detectable.
October 20, 2020
speech wave form
Ms Tech | Getty

Being sick, whether with a cold or covid-19, changes your voice in a variety of ways. Now MIT Lincoln Laboratory researchers have found that processing speech signals may reveal such changes in covid-19 patients before the effects can be heard, potentially offering a way to identify asymptomatic cases.

Thomas Quatieri of the laboratory’s Human Health and Performance Systems Group had previously used signal processing to detect indicators of disease in the speech of people with neurological disorders such as ALS and Parkinson’s. Thinking about the symptoms of covid-19, he and his colleagues reasoned that inflammation and breathing difficulties would be likely to affect the loudness, pitch, steadiness, and resonance of patients’ voices, perhaps before obvious symptoms developed. 

So they combed YouTube for interviews celebrities who’d tested positive for covid-19 had given while presumed asymptomatic. Then they downloaded older interviews with the same people and used algorithms to extract vocal features from each audio sample. The results suggest that the disease’s impact on muscle movement in the respiratory tract, the larynx, and articulatory features like the tongue, lips, and jaw causes subtle voice changes. 

The team is now working to validate the data and, with Satra Ghosh at the McGovern Institute, exploring ways to use it in mobile apps for screening. They also hope to consider neurophysiological impacts linked to covid-19, like the loss of taste and smell, Quatieri says: “Those symptoms can affect speaking too.”

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