“Your speech can offer a lot of information and clues into how your brain is functioning,” says Katie Fraser, a PhD candidate in the department of computer science at the University of Toronto.
“Dementia is often linked to language, and using today’s computational tools we can quickly evaluate a person’s speech.”
Dementia is a disease affecting 47.5 million people worldwide (World Health Organization). Research has consistently shown that particular changes in speech and language can signal early onset of the disease.
For Fraser, finding a computational solution for the detection of dementia has been the focus of her research and the idea behind the startup Winterlight Labs Inc.— software that uses natural language processing and machine learning technology to detect signs of dementia using speech samples.
“It’s important to get this research out of the academic sphere and into hands of people who can actually benefit from it,” says Fraser. “I think the best way to do this is to develop a product that people can use.”
Synaptive Medical Inc.’s office is bright, open and filled with trendy furniture. There are people at desks who look busy, and medical equipment that looks expensive. There’s also a squishy, pink brain.
The replica brain, explains president and co-founder Cameron Piron, is better than a real one if you’re practising brain surgery. It allows would-be neurosurgeons to try out Synaptive’s software, which helps them find the tumours they want to eliminate and avoid the tissue they want to keep intact.
Synaptive’s home is in the MaRS Discovery District’s new 20-storey tower in downtown Toronto. The tower has been, to put it mildly, controversial.
It took nine years and three government loans totalling about $380 million before the “innovation hub” overlooking Queen’s Park opened. The final loan was announced in December 2014, after an expert panel decided it was better to help MaRS finish the building than abandon it, despite initial difficulties attracting tenants.
Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne returned May 19 from a five-day business mission to Israel that emphasized innovation, research and development and resulted in 44 new agreements valued at more than $180 million.
Wynne was accompanied by representatives of Ontario’s business, health and higher education communities – including the University of Toronto.
Research shows that subtle changes in speech are one of the first symptoms of cognitive decline. And yet, the assessments currently used to evaluate cognitive status may not pick up on these nuances. This is where computer algorithms can step in, according to Toronto Rehabilitation Institute scientist and computer science professor Frank Rudzicz. He spoke with Faculty of Medicine writer Carolyn Morris about his health-care focused start-up, Winterlight Labs.