Listener Detection of Objectively Validated Acoustic Features of Speech in Huntington’s Disease

Subtle progressive changes in speech motor function and cognition begin prior to diagnosis of Huntington’s disease (HD).

Scientists at University of Melbourne and Monash University in Australia recently published a study looking at the nature of listener-rated speech differences in premanifest and early-stage HD (i.e., PreHD and EarlyHD), compared to neurologically healthy controls.

A speech battery was administered to 60 adults (16 people with PreHD, 14 with EarlyHD, and 30 neurologically healthy controls), and conducted a cognitive test of processing speed/visual attention, the Symbol Digit Modalities Test (SDMT) on participants with HD. Voice recordings were rated by expert listeners and analyzed for acoustic and perceptual speech features.

Results: Listeners perceived subtle differences in the speech of PreHD compared to controls, including abnormal pitch level and speech rate, reduced loudness and loudness inflection, altered voice quality, hypernasality, imprecise articulation, and reduced naturalness of speech. Listeners detected abnormal speech rate in PreHD compared to healthy speakers on a reading task, which correlated with slower speech rate from acoustic analysis and a lower cognitive performance score. In early-stage HD, continuous speech was characterized by longer pauses, a higher proportion of silence, and slower rate.

Differences in speech and voice acoustic features are detectable in PreHD by expert listeners and align with some acoustically-derived objective speech measures. Slower speech rate in PreHD suggests altered oral motor control and/or subtle cognitive deficits that begin prior to diagnosis. Speakers with EarlyHD exhibited more silences compared to the PreHD and control groups, raising the likelihood of a link between speech and cognition that is not yet well characterized in HD.

Published here in the Journal of Huntington’s Disease

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