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Analyzing Baby Cries For Signs Of Serious Disease

The earliest signs of certain ailments or development problems can be heard in the exact tone and cadence of newborn’s wail. Soon there could be an app for new parents and hospitals to get a hint of what’s the trouble.

Analyzing Baby Cries For Signs Of Serious Disease
[Image: Crying baby via Shutterstock]

When babies have certain health or development problems, they cry differently from other babies. The difference may not be noticeable to the average, untrained ear. But careful acoustic analysis can show the signs. One day parents may be able to get an indication of their children’s illnesses using nothing more than a smartphone.

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A team at Brown University is now creating a sophisticated analysis tool for baby cries, an early warming system that’s less invasive than traditional methods. The researchers hope it could soon be in hospitals around the country, and that their work could also lead to an app that new parents could use.

Scientists have known for years that neurological disorders cause babies to cry differently. One set of sounds is indicative of “Cri du chat” (cry of the cat), a condition similar to Down’s syndrome, for example. Analyzing the noises was always cumbersome, however, involving several human steps. The new technique records babies and puts the sounds through a software program. It breaks the “wah-wahs” into 12.5-millisecond pieces, and analyzes that against 80 parameters. It then compares the result with what is considered typical.

“First of all, it’s non-invasive. Second, the system is going to be completely automatic. Almost from the day they are born, you can come out and make some predictions in a consistent fashion,” says Harvey Silverman, a professor of engineering who’s taken care of the software side of the project. Silverman is collaborating with two other researchers, including Barry Lester, a specialist in baby sounds.

The system is now in use at Women & Infants Hospital, in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s been used to test for autism already, producing some strong results so far. They now want to widen the trials to more patients, and offer the program to other hospitals.

Silverman says the technique could one day help separate serious problems from those that are less so. For example, it could tell parents if a child is genuinely sick, or simply wet or needing food.

Of course, acoustical analysis won’t ever offer the final word. Doctors will still have to probe eventually. But it may help cut down on some unnecessary discomfort along the way, and it’s one more way that smartphones are changing patients’ relationship with their own health.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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