A new tool for analyzing the sound of a baby's cry could provide clues to crying patterns that might signal health problems.
Using the tool, the frequency of the crying's sound could reveal the likelihood that the baby has a developmental issue such as an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The tool is a computer program developed by doctors and engineers at Brown University and Women & Infants Hospital in Rhode Island.
“It’s a non-invasive way to possibly understand whether an infant is at risk for later developmental problems, particularly autism,” said Stephen Sheinkopf, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University who helped develop the tool. He said the new tool also helps measure the health status of babies in the newborn period, such as whether or not they’re experiencing pain after certain procedures in the hospital.
“We have known for a long time that older individuals with autism produce sounds or vocalizations that are unusual or atypical,” Sheinkopf said. “So vocalizations in babies have been discussed as being useful in developing early identification tools for autism. That’s been a major challenge. How do you find signs of autism in infancy?” The answer could be encoded in a cry.
Psychiatrist Barry Lester of Brown University who also helped develop the tool said the system could identify problems in infants who are premature, growing more slowly than normal, or who have been exposed to drugs. The analyzer consists of a standard digital voice recorder for capturing crying sounds, and a computer program that analyzes the sounds and extracts a suite of information about their acoustic features. The system breaks down the cries into 10-millisecond blocks, and measures the pitch, or fundamental frequency — the rate at which the vocal cords vibrate. The average fundamental frequency for a typical baby is about 300 to 400 Hertz, Lester said.
Announced July 11 in its News Release, Brown University says the new analyzer is the result of a two-year collaboration between faculty in Brown’s School of Engineering and hospital-based faculty at Women & Infants Hospital. A paper describing the tool is in press in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research.
“The idea is that cry can be a window into the brain,” Lester said. If neurological deficits change the way babies are able to control their vocal chords, those tiny differences might manifest themselves in differences in pitch and other acoustic features. Lester has published several papers showing that differences in cry are linked to medical problems stemming from malnutrition, prenatal drug exposure, and other risks.
During the 1950s and '60s, researchers in Scandinavia noticed that babies with certain abnormalities produced abnormal cries. The best example is "cry of the cat" syndrome, a genetic condition in which infants make high-pitched cat-like sounds. This gave scientists the idea that a baby's cry could indicate mental disorders. But "It's not like a blood test," Lester rejected a suggestion that the cry analyzer can detect specific mental problems. Rather, it can pick up on early warning signs that a baby may have problems.