One key insight from the research, Alhanai notes, is that, during experiments, the model needed much more data to predict depression from audio than text. With text, the model can accurately detect depression using an average of seven question-answer sequences. With audio, the model needed around 30 sequences. “That implies that the patterns in words people use that are predictive of depression happen in shorter time span in text than in audio,” Alhanai says. Such insights could help the MIT researchers, and others, further refine their models.

This work represents a “very encouraging” pilot, Glass says. But now the researchers seek to discover what specific patterns the model identifies across scores of raw data. “Right now it’s a bit of a black box,” Glass says. “These systems, however, are more believable when you have an explanation of what they’re picking up. … The next challenge is finding out what data it’s seized upon.”

The researchers also aim to test these methods on additional data from many more subjects with other cognitive conditions, such as dementia. “It’s not so much detecting depression, but it’s a similar concept of evaluating, from an everyday signal in speech, if someone has cognitive impairment or not,” Alhanai says.