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Japanese researchers tap AI to parse regional dialects, work toward early dementia diagnosis

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Staff Writer

People in Aomori Prefecture, especially in the western Tsugaru area, are known for their strong dialect, often leading outsiders to joke about needing a translator.

But for health care professionals, the issue is no laughing matter. Misunderstanding patients could lead to incorrect medical decisions, and the longer it takes for doctors and nurses unfamiliar with the dialect to deal with patients, the longer the wait will be for others.

In an effort to tackle the problem, Hirosaki University in Aomori and Tohoku Electric Power Co. this month started analyzing the voice data of 6,700 phone calls, covering 900 hours of calls the utility’s customer center has fielded from across the Tohoku region. They have also started collecting conversation data from 12 residents in their 20s through 70s in the town of Ajigasawa located in the southwestern part of the prefecture.

Using AI-powered computers, the researchers will convert the voice data into standard Japanese text and then create a database, hoping to utilize it in medical practice and for research, said Ryo Suzuki, a senior administrator at the university’s school of health sciences.

“The town of Ajigasawa is known as an area where the so-called Tsugaru dialect — which is hard enough for people from outside the prefecture to understand — is particularly strong,” he said. “That’s partly why we thought the town is an ideal community to partner with.”

Suzuki cited the dialect’s koe-katta as an example of a confusing phrase used by patients. The phrase sounds similar to kowakatta (it was scary) in standard Japanese, but koe-katta indicates a feeling of tiredness. Such expressions could be misunderstood by doctors and other medical workers hailing from outside the prefecture, he said.

Suzuki added that medical students at the university currently take a course in Tsugaru dialect, using an original textbook that lists Japanese translations of Tsugaru words.

Through the project, researchers want to create a database of abridged standard-Japanese patient speech so that hospital workers can share patient information more efficiently, he said.

Separately, at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, a team led by associate professor Eiji Aramaki is developing software to detect the earliest signs of dementia by analyzing daily conversation.

Japan has nearly 5 million people with dementia, and 4 million more have mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which causes a slight but noticeable decline in cognitive abilities like memory and thinking skills. The number of people with dementia is expected to rise further as the nation’s population ages.

This month, Aramaki started a pilot study with a major IT company to test the software among elderly patients with MCI, eyeing commercialization of the technology in two years.

The test participants will be given an iPad and asked to talk with family members who don’t live nearby on a regular basis. The software will automatically pick up words used by the participants and analyze their vocabulary level, he said.

Aramaki said healthy people use 7,000 words or more in daily conversation, whereas people with Alzheimer’s use far fewer words.

“It’s been known that people with Alzheimer’s have problems remembering words … so their vocabulary shrinks,” he said. “But there was no way of measuring such declines in vocabulary. We are trying to create a device that measures that and combines it with voice recognition software.”

In an earlier project with Kyoto University’s medical school involving 20 people with Alzheimer’s and 20 people without, the software identified those with the degenerative disease with an accuracy rate of 70 percent, he said.

The service is intended to motivate people in the earliest stages to learn about their dementia risks and seek medical help, Aramaki said. He said he hopes to get the software installed on service robots in the future so users’ daily, natural conversation will be picked up and analyzed.

But advances in such technology, which could expedite dementia diagnoses, have huge implications ethically, socially and legally. Aramaki said he is working with ethics researchers at Kyoto University to come up with ways to best pursue his technology.

“Early diagnoses have ethical issues, as there’s currently no cure for dementia,” he said. “There are people who don’t want to get diagnosed early, because wills written by people with dementia can be considered invalid. We have to think carefully about what social implications there are about early diagnoses.”

A Matter of Health covers current research, technology or policy issues relating to health in Japan.