I was recently part of an Australian study on whether tinnitus can be measured through neuroimaging.
An objective way to measure tinnitus might be possible thanks to the Bionics Institute (BI). Located in Australia, BI is an internationally recognized, independent medical research institute that solves medical challenges with technology. They work on research and development of innovative medical devices and therapies to improve and transform the lives of people with a range of conditions, including hearing loss and tinnitus.
Researchers at BI have been working on a method to measure tinnitus in the brain using functional near-infrared spectroscopy. As described in a March 2012 Gait & Posture article, this “non-invasive brain imaging technique measures blood oxygenation changes similar to a functional MRI. The technique is based upon the changes in absorption of light emitted by sources onto the surface of the head and measured by detectors.” For the tinnitus study at BI, these results are then analyzed by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. The aim is to set a baseline for tracking changes in the brain triggered by tinnitus.
The first phase of the study included 25 tinnitus patients and 18 people without tinnitus (the control group). They had a hearing test, followed by a scan by the neuroimaging device. This occurred at a resting state and when they were visually and auditory stimulated. The study identified fNIRS features that are associated with subjective ratings of tinnitus severity.
Published in the peer-reviewed open access scientific journal by the Public Library of Science, PLOS One, the study reported that fNIRS can be used to distinguish people that have tinnitus from those who don’t. It can also differentiate the different levels of tinnitus severity from mild to severe. After the initial phase, BI included more results from patients and healthy individuals, confirming the initial findings. This information is being added to the database to refine and improve the AI algorithms.
The next step in the study is to develop tinnitus specific hardware. Then it will be fully integrated with the AI algorithms. This way, clinicians can easily get information about the presence and severity of tinnitus. They will subsequently evaluate and test this objective measure with a potential treatment. This will be done by measuring before and after individuals receive treatments. They are considering working with a number of possible treatments already in the pipeline. Funding is being sought for this phase. The timeframe for the completion of this last phase could be 4-5 years. It will very much depend on funding.
I was part of the study as a volunteer in 2021 for the second phase, when they included a larger testing sample. The total duration of the study was about 45 minutes. They first conducted an interview asking general medical history questions. They also asked specific questions about how tinnitus has affected my life and well-being. Next, they conducted a hearing test, confirming I do not have significant hearing loss. After that, I was transferred to another room where they had the neuroimaging device, a head cap with wires. It was placed on my head as I watched patterns on a screen while noise was played through earphones. I had no changes in tinnitus due to the study.
After a year and a half of having a constant high pitch sound in my ears, looking for treatments, and ways to cope, this was the first time I felt hope in science treating tinnitus. Currently no one knows exactly what people are hearing when they describe tinnitus sounds other than the person experiencing the symptoms. That is part of the problem with tinnitus. The subjective and changeable nature of the condition makes it hard for researchers to have accurate results that can prove the effectiveness of a treatment.
“…this was the first time I felt hope in science treating tinnitus.”
The only reliable treatments I have come across for treating my tinnitus have been Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and sound therapy. These are focused on the management of symptoms instead of the reduction of tinnitus. With tinnitus and hearing loss on the rise, along with their significant emotional and economic impact, it is essential for a potential cure to have an objective way to measure tinnitus.