Automatic Recognition, Segmentation, and Sex Assignment of Nocturnal Asthmatic Coughs and Cough Epochs in Smartphone Audio Recordings: Observational Field Study


Filipe Barata, Peter Tinschert, Frank Rassouli, Claudia Steurer-Stey, Elgar Fleisch, Milo Puhan, Martin Brutsche, David Kotz, and Tobias Kowatsch. Automatic Recognition, Segmentation, and Sex Assignment of Nocturnal Asthmatic Coughs and Cough Epochs in Smartphone Audio Recordings: Observational Field Study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, volume 22, number 7, article e18082, 15 pages. JMIR Publications, July 14, 2020. doi:10.2196/18082. ©Copyright the authors.


Background: Asthma is one of the most prevalent chronic respiratory diseases. Despite increased investment in treatment, little progress has been made in the early recognition and treatment of asthma exacerbations over the last decade. Nocturnal cough monitoring may provide an opportunity to identify patients at risk for imminent exacerbations. Recently developed approaches enable smartphone-based cough monitoring. These approaches, however, have not undergone longitudinal overnight testing nor have they been specifically evaluated in the context of asthma. Also, the problem of distinguishing partner coughs from patient coughs when two or more people are sleeping in the same room using contact-free audio recordings remains unsolved.

Objective: The objective of this study was to evaluate the automatic recognition and segmentation of nocturnal asthmatic coughs and cough epochs in smartphone-based audio recordings that were collected in the field. We also aimed to distinguish partner coughs from patient coughs in contact-free audio recordings by classifying coughs based on sex.

Methods: We used a convolutional neural network model that we had developed in previous work for automated cough recognition. We further used techniques (such as ensemble learning, minibatch balancing, and thresholding) to address the imbalance in the data set. We evaluated the classifier in a classification task and a segmentation task. The cough-recognition classifier served as the basis for the cough-segmentation classifier from continuous audio recordings. We compared automated cough and cough-epoch counts to human-annotated cough and cough-epoch counts. We employed Gaussian mixture models to build a classifier for cough and cough-epoch signals based on sex.

Results: We recorded audio data from 94 adults with asthma (overall: mean 43 years; SD 16 years; female: 54/94, 57%; male 40/94, 43%). Audio data were recorded by each participant in their everyday environment using a smartphone placed next to their bed; recordings were made over a period of 28 nights. Out of 704,697 sounds, we identified 30,304 sounds as coughs. A total of 26,166 coughs occurred without a 2-second pause between coughs, yielding 8238 cough epochs. The ensemble classifier performed well with a Matthews correlation coefficient of 92% in a pure classification task and achieved comparable cough counts to that of human annotators in the segmentation of coughing. The count difference between automated and human-annotated coughs was a mean –0.1 (95% CI –12.11, 11.91) coughs. The count difference between automated and human-annotated cough epochs was a mean 0.24 (95% CI –3.67, 4.15) cough epochs. The Gaussian mixture model cough epoch–based sex classification performed best yielding an accuracy of 83%.

Conclusions: Our study showed longitudinal nocturnal cough and cough-epoch recognition from nightly recorded smartphone-based audio from adults with asthma. The model distinguishes partner cough from patient cough in contact-free recordings by identifying cough and cough-epoch signals that correspond to the sex of the patient. This research represents a step towards enabling passive and scalable cough monitoring for adults with asthma.

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Keywords: [mhealth]

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