Max Little: Detecting Parkinson's by the sound of a voice

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    Max Little's big idea

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Editor’s Note: Watch a 30-minute profile of Max Little Sunday at 2 p.m. on CNN’s “The Next List.”

By The Next List Staff, CNN

Who: Max Little, applied mathematician and project director of the Parkinson’s Voice Initiative.

Why you might know him: You probably don't, but you should. Little's bold idea is this: What if doctors could detect Parkinson’s Disease simply by the sound of your voice? He’s close to proving just that.

How the sound of your voice could be a test for Parkinsons: The idea sounds wild, but Little says he can determine if a person has Parkinson's simply if a person says "ahhhhhh" into a phone for 10 seconds. You don't have to have symptoms for it to work. Maybe the craziest part: Max isn’t a doctor; he’s a mathematician. The magic of the diagnosis is in the algorithms.

    How well this sound-based Parkinson's test works: Right now Max is fine-tuning his algorithms with the “Parkinson’s Voice Initiative." He’s collected over 17,000 voices from all over the world that he’s using to test his algorithms. In a lab, Max can predict Parkinson’s disease 99% of the time. If he can get his technology predict with the same accuracy for cell phone calls, it could revolutionize the way neurologists diagnose and treat Parkinson’s. “A practical future use of this technology could be that a neurologist has a number set up, a person can call into that number," he said. “They leave a voice recording. The algorithms would analyze that voice recording and then a neurologist can get an indication about whether or not they have Parkinson’s and the probability associated with that. And then, of course, they can get back to the patient and follow-up.”

    What another expert thinks of the idea: Dr. Nicte Mejia, a neurologist from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston says Little's technology could be used in several ways, particularly to diagnose people remotely who may not normally have access to a neurologist. “If it helps you screen people with a disease that is limiting their quality of life and you can help get them screened through very low cost and very easily accessible technology, it would mean a lot to my patients,” Mejia said. The technology couldn’t come at a better time, she said since the number of Parkinson's cases in the world is expected to grow from 4.5 million at present to 9 million by 2030.

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    His other career: Little wrote compositions that were widely used as incidental music for television and radio shows.

    On why you should care about math: “Math is the hidden backbone of the modern world: flight, computers, mobile phones, the Internet, GPS, etc. Just a little bit of math provides insight into the very fabric of reality as we know it. No other subject is more fundamental to our survival on this planet.”

    Max’s number one piece of advice: “No matter how sane, natural or reasonable it seems to you, never simply trust what you grew up to believe.”