Modality.AI and MGH Institute of Health Professions Awarded Grant for App to Track and Help Diagnose ALS

(Boston, MA and San Francisco, CA)

July 6, 2022

Artificial Intelligence-based app could have significant impact on patient access, cost and accuracy; faster measurement will shorten drug trials and reduce time to market

Can a digital health app be used to help diagnose ALS, track its progression, and determine whether the medicine used to treat the disease is even effective?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is about to find out. It has awarded a $2.3 million grant to Modality.AI and the MGH Institute of Health Professions to determine if data collected from an app is as effective, or more effective, than the observations of clinical experts who diagnose and treat ALS. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) could have a profound impact on improving ALS diagnosis, decreasing costs for patients and healthcare providers while eliminating the need for patients to travel to clinics for assessment.

The app developed by Modality features a virtual agent, Tina, who guides patients through the assessment. Tina interviews patients in a way very similar to a clinician and in doing so gathers their speech and facial behaviors and uses AI to measure and analyze the data.

The app developed by Modality features a virtual agent, Tina, who guides patients through the assessment. Tina interviews patients in a way very similar to a clinician and in doing so gathers their speech and facial behaviors and uses AI to measure and analyze the data. Using a virtual agent is a cutting-edge method of obtaining speech data information while engaging patients in an immersive user experience.

The advantages of using Modality’s Tina app are five-fold:

  • Disease-related changes can be detected earlier and with more precision, which will facilitate a faster diagnosis along with monitoring the disease’s progression

  • Testing of new drugs used to reduce the symptoms and advancement of the disease can be improved

  • Automated assessments can be “self-driven” and administered remotely; a patient receives a standard and consistent instruction set and never has to leave home

  • Decreases burden on provider time because the test is administered without a clinician

  • Offers non-judgmental interaction, which can be helpful for individuals with comorbid mental health challenges

“This could be a game-changer for tracking ALS and understanding the impact of the medicines used to treat it,” said Dr. Jordan Green, principal investigator and Director of the Speech and Feeding Disorders Lab at MGH Institute of Health Professions. “I think if we're successful, it'll change the standard clinical care practice. Our work is mostly face-to-face, often expensive and can be less attainable for the socially and economically disadvantaged and those who can’t travel or have mobility issues. With this app, we’ll be able to capture more data and in turn, help more people. It will be cheaper, faster – and we’ll get more accurate assessments.”

The demand for accurate, low-cost, and remote speech assessments is surging from multiple sectors including health care providers, pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions. The wide appeal of using speech as a diagnostic marker is, in part, its accessibility to computer analyses and, more importantly, that changes in speech are associated with a large number of psychiatric and neurological conditions. Yet, few commercial digital speech monitoring tools have been developed. This gap can now be addressed due to the ubiquity of personal devices and the recent emergence of new camera sensors and automated speech analytics. Developing a solution, however, will require input from investigators with diverse backgrounds, including speech-language pathology, mobile device architecture, software privacy and security, speech analytics, and artificial intelligence.

“From the beginning, we realized that merely monitoring audio was inadequate to the task, so we developed a software platform to assess facial expressions, limb movements, and even cognitive functions,” said Dr. David Suendermann-Oeft, CEO of Modality. “Our aim is to make these complex assessments easy to use, accessible, equitable, and accurate for patients, clinicians, and researchers.”

The potential implications of this groundbreaking app include:

  • Reducing misdiagnoses and delayed diagnosis

  • Increasing accuracy and accessibility, while reducing the cost of clinical care

  • Improving clinical trials of new experimental drugs

The grant funds will come from the NIH agency, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, and will be awarded over three years. Phase 1 will take one year and Phase II, two years. The goal of NIH’s Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants program is to facilitate the commercialization of innovations from federally supported research and development. The academic-industry partnerships are intended to bring innovation out of the lab and into the world and, thereby, improve healthcare delivery while spurring economic growth.

“I jumped at the opportunity to work with Modality,” said Dr. Green. “The members of the team have unique and extensive histories of developing AI speech applications and commercial interest in implementing this technology into mainstream health care and clinical trials. New technologies are particularly at risk of failing when they are not supported by a commercial entity.”

How it Works

Modality provides a software-as-a-service web application that can be used on internet connected smartphones, tablets, and computers. Not only can it measure the progression of ALS, but it is also geared toward helping diagnose the disease.

Using the Modality application is as simple as clicking a link. The patient receives an email or text message indicating it is time to create a recording. Clicking a link starts a user session. After the user grants permission, the system activates the camera and microphone, and Tina, the AI virtual agent, begins giving instructions. The patient then is asked to count numbers, repeat sentences, and read a paragraph, for example, all the while the app is collecting data to measure variables from the video and audio signals such as speed of lip and jaw movements, speaking rate, pitch variation, and pausing patterns.

Tina decodes information from both speech acoustics and speech movements, which are extracted automatically from full-face video recordings obtained during the assessment. Computer vision technologies – such as face tracking – provide a non-invasive way to accurately record and compute features from large amounts of data from facial movements during speech.

"The Modality system leads the user through standard assessments and takes measurements that allow the clinician to optimize their time and expertise," said Suendermann-Oeft. “And it produces a dashboard of speech analytics that can be measured across time to make assessments, for example, if the individual is responding to medication, if they need extra support, or to characterize their overall disease progression.”

Implications for Patient and Pharma and the Proof Point

It can take up to 18 months to get diagnosed with ALS, and by the time that diagnosis arrives, the patient has already lost motor neurons that are responsible for speech, swallowing, breathing, and walking. The benefits of drug therapies and other interventions will be maximized if they are administered early during the disease while motor neurons are still intact. Tina is helping meet the medical need for a diagnostic tool that helps identify ALS earlier, improving the effectiveness of therapeutics.

Researchers will compare results obtained through Modality’s Tina platform to those from top-of-the-line equipment currently being used to track the progression of ALS. If the results match the results from clinicians and their state-of-the-art equipment, then researchers will know they have a valid approach.

“Our collaboration with the MGH Institute of Health Professions will create a standardized assessment app for ALS, which can serve as a guiding example also for other neurological and psychiatric conditions,” said Suendermann-Oeft.

About MGH Institute of Health Professions

MGH Institute of Health Professions is the only degree-granting affiliate of Mass General Brigham, New England’s largest health provider, and counts more than 10,000 alumni since its 1977 founding. A critical differentiator at the Institute is the emphasis on integrating interprofessional education into its academic programs—students collaborating in teams across all disciplines as they pursue post-baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degrees in genetic counseling, health administration, healthcare data analytics, health professions education, nursing, leadership in nursing education, leadership in nursing administration, occupational therapy, physical therapy, physician assistant studies, rehabilitation sciences, and speech-language pathology. The interprofessional learning model extends to hundreds of hospitals, clinical, community, and educational sites in Greater Boston and beyond. Founded by Massachusetts General Hospital and located in the Charlestown Navy Yard, the IHP is fully accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education. Several programs are highly ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

About Modality.AI

Modality.AI, Inc. was cofounded in 2018 by CEO David Suendermann-Oeft, PhD, and CTO David Pautler, PhD, experts in AI and signal processing. Modality has pioneered the technology for assessing neurological and psychiatric conditions remotely or in clinical settings. The Modality platform uses AI-powered audio and visual measurements of patient conversations with the assistance of Tina, the Modality virtual agent.

From Parkinson’s disease to schizophrenia and depression, Modality's multimodal platform, listed with the FDA as a Class II medical device, is being used by leading clinical research institutions globally to diagnose, monitor, and expedite the treatment of patients through clinical trials. Most recently, Medcity awarded Modality, which is backed by international venture capital funds, first prize in their pharma tech pitch contest and likened Modality’s virtual assistant Tina to “Alexa of Clinical Trials.”


Kate Chaney

Office of Strategic Communications

MGH Institute of Health Professions

David Fox

Chief Business Officer