Health Scan: HU researchers learn how brain recognizes speech

Health Scan HU research

Computers without human programming are said to be dumb machines, so when you want them to recognize voices, they have to be trained. Now Hebrew University researchers have shed light on the brain mechanism responsible for processing speech - and their work could contribute to improvement of voice-recognition technologies. Dr. Robert Gütig and Prof. Haim Sompolinsky of HU's Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences have succeeded in devising a model that describes and identifies a basic cellular mechanism that enables networks of neurons to decode speech in changing conditions. The research may lead to the upgrading of computer algorithms for faster and more precise speech recognition, as well as to the development of innovative treatments for human auditory problems. The human brain is able to process speech and other complex auditory stimuli - even when the signals reach our ears in a slowed, accelerated or distorted manner. However, the neuronal mechanisms that lets the brain perceive a word correctly - for example, one that is pronounced in different ways by different speakers - was a mystery to scientists until now. In the cellular process, sensory neurons in the brain can automatically adjust their perceptual clocks and thus correct large temporal variations in the rate at which sounds arrive from the environment. According to their discovery, recently published in the PLoS Biology journal and patented by Yissum (HU's technology transfer company), the biophysical mechanism in the brain enables single nerve cells to perform word identification almost perfectly. The understanding of the process of speech decoding could lead to the upgrading of speech-recognition technology in communications and computing, for instance in telephone voice dialing or in voice- and sound-monitoring devices. KIDS WITH ASTHMA SHOULD BE MONITORED IN SCHOOL Parents of asthmatic children are advised to take them to their pediatrician or other specialist early in the school year to consult on reducing the risk of complications if they get infected with H1N1 flu. The Israel Pediatric Pulmonology Association recently issued guidelines about asthmatic children and the flu. Children should be told and shown how to wash their hands regularly and to avoid being in closed spaces. Certain medications can be prescribed to cope with asthma attacks and prevent complications from the flu, for which asthmatic children are at higher risk. The children should also avoid exposure to things that set off attacks such as passive cigarette smoke and allergens; the same is true for adults. Asthmatics of all ages should be vaccinated against seasonal flu when it becomes available. Prof. Ben-Zion Garti of Schneider Children's Medical Center in Petah Tikva said six percent of child hospitalizations last September were the result of asthma and its complications, according to a retrospective study of seven hospitals owned by Clalit Health Services. Such a rise did not occur among adults with asthma, leading to the conclusion that the opening of schools and kindergartens were responsible for this, Garti said. OPEN YOUR MOUTH AND SAY 'HI' People have a hard time being without their cellphones. Indeed, many Americans can't manage to part with them even while sitting in the dental chair, according to UPI. Eighty percent of dentists who belong to the Chicago Dental Society say patients are texting while being treated. In July, the organization asked its 4,000 members to complete a survey on its Facebook fan page. Forty-six percent of the dentists who responded said their ability to provide dental care is hampered when patients send and receive e-mail, and 32% said they have a cell phone/mobile device policy posted in a visible location, directing patients to turn them off to "facilitate dentist/patient communication." Chicago pediatric dentist Dr. Cissy Furusho noted, however, that texting during treatment is "not a problem" because teenage patients have mastered texting to the point that they don't have to look down at their phone keyboard to "talk."