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Researchers track depression via speech patterns over telephones

SYDNEY--Ten years ago, one farmer every week was taking his own life in response to the misery brought by Australia's worst drought in a generation.

With farms sometimes hundreds of kilometers apart, busy country doctors were at a loss to provide adequate care for those whose depression might lead them to suicide. Now technology looks set to provide them with a helping hand in monitoring the mental state of those living in far-flung properties.

In a trial set up by researchers in Australia and the United States, an automated telephone system has shown itself able to identify those at particular risk by changes in their speech patterns.

Melbourne University speech pathologist Adam Vogel explained how it worked: “The participant calls a toll-free number and an automated system prompts the speaker to produce a number of tasks, like saying ahhh!, talking about how they feel, reading a passage they had been sent before the study began.”

The recordings, taken at weekly intervals, are run through an automated analysis program and doctors are alerted to changes that might show a worrying deterioration. Vogel said depression can't be diagnosed based purely on speech, but it is useful as a marker of change.

The automated system passed the trials and could soon be up and running in Australia and elsewhere. “Not far off,” Vogel said. “We're working with a commercial partner to bring this technology to the public.”

Run jointly with the Center for Psychological Consultation in Wisconsin, the trial involved 105 adults with serious depression.

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