Australian researchers have developed a new technology to objectively measure tinnitus, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE today.

Dr Mehrnaz Shoushtarian from the Bionics Institute led this research, with collaborators from Deakin University. 

Tinnitus refers to hearing sounds such as ringing or shrieking which are not present externally. This condition affects up to 1 in 5 adults, and in its chronic, severe form can lead to depression and stress. Despite its wide prevalence, there is currently no clinical test to objectively measure or assess tinnitus. Lack of an objective measure hinders development of treatments, to the extent that there is currently no reliable solution available for this condition.  

One of many tinnitus sufferers in Australia, 59-year-old Victoria has lived with a “continuous, relentless screeching” inside her head for the past seven years. Victoria sleeps with a white-noise generator and uses various relaxation techniques to “moderate” her tinnitus. But she believes that a scientifically validated objective test for measuring the condition could be a significant step towards finding a cure.

The COVID-19 pandemic this year has made coping more difficult. Many individuals with tinnitus and COVID-19 symptoms are known to experience a worsening of their tinnitus. Even those without COVID-19, are known to experience worse tinnitus due to social distancing measures.

The study has used a non-invasive brain imaging technique called fNIRS which uses light to measure changes in brain oxygen levels. Researchers analysed fNIRS data collected at rest and in response to auditory and visual stimuli from individuals with tinnitus and a group of volunteers without tinnitus. Their findings showed differences in fNIRS signals between the groups at rest and reduced responses in the control group. Machine learning algorithms were used to combine signal features from the different conditions and showed the ability to predict whether an individual’s fNIRS recordings belonged to a mild or severe tinnitus sub-group with high accuracy. These findings show great promise for use of this technique to assess new treatments or monitor the effectiveness of treatment programs on patients.

What is fNIRS?

Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) is a non-invasive brain imaging technique. Patients wear a cap that shines lights into their head and records the amount of light that is reflected. The amount of light provides a measure of brain activity.

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