Although a cure for dementia is many years away, exciting Canadian research has the potential to transform dementia care. YouAreUNLTD caught up with WinterLight Labs president Frank Rudzicz and CEO Liam Kaufman to talk about their groundbreaking tablet-based speech analyzer, which can detect Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages. The technology works by extracting variables from recorded speech snippets and analyzing linguistic clues, such as tone or rate of speech.
Where is your automatic speech-based assessment tool being used?
FR: We’ve set up pilot projects at four senior living communities that use the tool to monitor the progress of dementia in residents and, in some cases, to provide objective evidence that they need more care. We’ve also struck up partnerships with three pharmaceutical companies that use it for research and development.
How did you identify the need for the speech analyzer?
LK: We did lots of research and spoke to physicians and pharmaceutical companies about what could be done to benefit an aging population. One in 10 Canadians is at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease after age 65, so, given demographic trends, dementia is going to be a huge, huge issue. I think it’s more of an issue now than 20 years ago, and I think it will be even more of an issue 20 years from now.
How will your assessment tool make a difference in people’s lives?
LK: On the simplest level, our assessments are less anxiety-provoking for patients than traditional pencil-and-paper memory tests – in fact, some people really enjoy doing them. More importantly, our speech analyzers are much quicker than current tests, which will free up doctors to better assess patients. Our speech analyzer could play a critical role in the diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Catching the disease early is crucial. It means people will have time to make changes to their lifestyle, like eating better or taking up more exercise, which might slow progression. Finally, we hope our partnerships with pharmaceutical companies will lead to the development of new Alzheimer’s therapies.
What are the challenges?
FR: We’ve had to pivot several times to get our business model, especially in the early days. On an ongoing basis, we must be meticulous in our protocols to make sure our data covers co-occurring conditions. For example, we need our algorithms to work with people who have different accents or who are different ages.
LK: We also need to be sure that the diagnostic process eliminates other causes of cognitive impairment, such as depression, which overlaps with dementia.
How do you envision the technology evolving?
FR: The technology might evolve into something more passive – a tool that collects information as patients are going about their day, like some projects that track breathing patterns of patients with COPD. Since we deal with language and meaning, we must be careful that patients’ privacy is maintained.
LK: Or, to probe eye movement for clues to dementia – the more modalities you measure, the better you can capture someone’s cognitive state. As well, we hope our technology can be used to detect a range of cognitive conditions and central nervous system disorders.
In the long term, we might be able to use our technology to predict pre-dementia. We’ve actually tracked televised interviews of Gene Wilder and Ronald Reagan, looking for signs of Alzheimer’s disease before they were diagnosed. But we need much more data before we can make any claims, and, right now, this project is on the back burner.
What are WinterLight’s goals?
FR: Our short-term goal is to expand our network of partners and to further validate our technology under a variety of use cases. Although our speech analyzer is currently being used by our partners for research, ultimately, we’d like to roll out the analyzer to doctors’ offices and hospitals. We also fully expect the analyzer to be used in retirement homes and long-term care facilities.
How has the speech analyzer been received by the medical community?
LK: We are taking something that doctors already do and making it more objective and reliable. I think they are excited about that, but cautious. Doctors typically want to see three, four or even five studies. So, we need to publish more.
A Brief History
The start-up incorporated in September 2015 and the following year won AGE-WELL’s Technology to Support People with Dementia pitch competition. As well, the aging and technology network provided WinterLight with funding that helped them get off the ground. In 2017, WinterLight finalized $1.5 million in seed funding and joined Revera’s Innovators in Aging program.
Originally published in Issue 01 of YouAreUNLTD Magazine.