Although Homer Simpson’s brother’s Baby Translator may still only be a whimsical concept, Rhode Island scientists have developed something that could prove to be even more valuable. Researchers at Brown University teamed up with faculty at Women & Infants Hospital, to create a computer tool that may find use detecting neurological or developmental problems in infants, by analyzing their cries.

The software starts by breaking recordings of baby cries down into 12.5-millisecond “frames,” then analyzing each of those frames for parameters such as frequency and volume. All of that individual frame data is then combined to provide an overview of the cry.

At that point, the system also distinguishes between utterances (complete stand-alone noises) and the pauses between them. The length of both the utterances and pauses is noted, as are changes in pitch and other variables that occur throughout the duration of each utterance. Altogether, 80 parameters are measured for each cry.

The analysis of baby cries is a field that has been researched for decades. It is hoped that by using this new technology, clinicians will be able to detect extremely subtle variances that would previously have gone unnoticed. From there, the challenge will lie in determining which of those variances indicate which disorders – an area where further research is required.

“Early detection of developmental disorders is critical,” says Barry Lester, director of Brown’s Center for the Study of Children at Risk. “It can lead to insights into the causes of these disorders and interventions to prevent or reduce the severity of impairment.”