Can Speech Analysis Predict Schizophrenia in Young People?

A new research study published in the journal Schizophrenia suggests that a computerized speech-analysis program can predict likelihood of young people developing schizophrenia later in life.  Developed by a team of researchers at Columbia University, the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, the program looks fordisjointed speech patterns and other language problems that can suggest the kind of thought disturbances often found in young people in the very early stages of schizophrenia.   Based on their analysis of the speech of thirty-four at-risk youths, the researchers have concluded that their speech analysis program is 100 percent effective in detecting psychosis.    

“In our study, we found that minimal semantic coherence—the flow of meaning from one sentence to the next—was characteristic of those young people at risk who later developed psychosis,” said Guillermo Cecchi, a biometaphorical-computing researcher for IBM Research and one of the authors of the study, in an interview with The Atlantic magazine.  "“It was not the average. What this means is that over 45 minutes of interviewing, these young people had at least one occasion of a jarring disruption in meaning from one sentence to the next. As an interviewer, if my mind wandered briefly, I might miss it. But a computer would pick it up.”

Through automatic language analysis, the program can look at the sentence length, use of modifiers, and speech disruptions often seen in  mental illness.   Speech analysis can also be used in a variety of different settings with fewer mistakes than existing methods.   At present, psychiatrists who interview people suspected of being at-risk for mental illness are only able to identify future schizophrenia cases with seventy-nine percent accuracy.   By measuring the kind of syntax and semantic problems seen in people who are particularly vulnerable to mental illness, the researchers hope to provide preventive treatment which could delay or even prevent the onset of more serious symptoms.

Schizophrenia usually begins in young adults and can affect around one percent of the population.  There are believed to be over twenty million schizophrenics worldwide and the majority are able to be functioning members of society with proper medication.    Since people with schizophrenia are frequently misdiagnosed or are unable to receive necessary treatment due to financial or limited access to health care,  they often experience significant problems living in the community and can become homeless or enter the criminal justice system.      The life expectancy for people with schizophrenia is often twenty years less than in the regular population since they are more vulnerable to serious health problems due to being unable to care for themselves.  Treatment that begins earlier can lead to patients having a greater chance of avoiding many of the life problems linked to schizophrenia.

While speech analysis appears to be a promising tool in providing high-risk young people with specially tailored treatment programming, more research is needed to see how effective it is in diagnosing schizophrenia in different treatment settings.  

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