Recent research by an Indian American professor at the Seton Hall School of Health and Medical Sciences in South Orange, N.J., may lead to an easy way to make early detection of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other degenerative brain diseases.

If her research goes to plan, Indian American Professor Sona Patel, an assistant professor of speech-language pathology, will open the door for a smartphone app to make early detections of those diseases.

Patel is looking at errors in various speech tasks to search for voice clues in the early onset of the diseases.

Patel’s research was funded by a three-year, $380,000 grant from the National Institute of Deafness and Communicative Disorders and looks at how people react when their auditory feedback is changed when they speak.

The study, which is being conducted with a growing team that has four graduate and undergraduate research assistants at the Voice Analytics and Neuropsychology Lab at SHU, combines brain activity analysis with altered auditory feedback to detect differences in brain activity and vocal responses.

“We connect the research participants to an EEG system and a microphone and ask them to say a vowel sound while they listen to themselves through headphones,” said Patel in a SHU report. “They are asked to maintain a steady sound, but we make it tricky by changing the auditory feedback slightly, such as pitch or loudness, and measure their neural and voice responses.”

Preliminary findings show differences between people with Parkinson’s disease and healthy individuals in how they react to changes in real-time auditory feedback.

The study was conducted in collaboration with Northwestern University.

Patel previously worked exclusively with Parkinson’s patients but has expanded to include those with Alzheimer’s, mild cognitive impairment and even people who have trouble remembering things.

She is currently looking for men and women older than 50 to take part in the research, collaborating with Hackensack University Medical Center and the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, among others.

The hope for Patel is that her research leads to an easy-to-access and inexpensive diagnostic tool that can be used to detect cognitive decline early on. She also hopes the tool can be used throughout the world, including in less developed nations where patients with neurological diseases often go undiagnosed and untreated.

“What I would envision is to put this software on an app that can be used by the patient directly or in a medical facility,” Patel said in the SHU report. “A patient or doctor could do a quick test with a vocal recording, and the score would indicate the likelihood of a neurological problem. If patients can be diagnosed in an early stage of disease, treatment and drug therapies can start at that time, possibly slowing the disease progression.”

Patel expects to have the results from her neuro-behavioral modeling research in the fall of 2016. Following the results, Patel and her team will look for ways to apply the research in practical and clinical settings. 

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