Sonde Health May Be Able to Detect Depression in Your Voice

The startup is using smartphones to analyze speech patterns and their ties to disease.


Sonde health app/photo provided

Someday, we may be able to detect disease just by talking into our smartphones.

That’s the mission of Sonde Health, a Back Bay startup launched last month to research the connection between health problems and speech. The company takes samples of your speaking voice (say, on phone calls) and analyzes the ways in which it changes over time to try and pinpoint indicators of conditions such as depression, dementia, Parkinson’s, and traumatic brain injury.

Skeptical? It may not be such a crazy idea. The company is working with MIT, and founder and COO Jim Harper says speech technology outperformed every other indicator of depression at the most recent Audio/Visual Emotion Challenge. Further, he says the thinking behind Sonde is actually nothing new.

“We’ve been detecting clinical depression through the voice for years,” Harper explains. “When someone is talking slower, or in a flat tone, we know something could be off.”

Making that kind of assessment, however, was historically near impossible to quantify. Today, we have the technology to examine certain indicators—speed, pitch, length of syllables, hoarseness, and more—and track their gradual progression.

“Speech is one of the most complex things we do as humans. It’s very close to our underlying physiology,” Harper says. “Only recently do we have the [technological] intelligence to objectively combine and analyze the voice’s nuances. The time is now to apply it on a public health level.”

Sonde’s work is still very much in development—it’s still limited to in-person, recorded vocal screenings based on a series of prompts—and Harper stresses that the startup is moving slowly to ensure total accuracy. Eventually, though, the goal is to develop a consumer-operated smartphone plug-in that can simply run in the background during calls, voice memos, and chats with Siri.

Harper thinks the app will be even more far-reaching than people realize. He says it could also help to detect physical ailments, such as concussions and cardiovascular disease.

“Speech is tied to our brain structure, our respiratory system, our skeletal system…they all have to communicate for us to be able to talk to each other,” Harper says. “So we have real reason to believe this platform can be applied very broadly, and we’re excited about the role it will play in de-stigmatizing mental health.”