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Developing an objective test for tinnitus

Our new PhD students started their research projects in October, studying topics from a new way to measure tinnitus to improving cochlear implant surgery.

A top research priority for us and people with tinnitus is to find a treatment to eliminate or reduce tinnitus. Researchers around the world are working hard to achieve this goal. However, a major challenge slowing progress is that we do not have a reliable way to ‘objectively’ measure tinnitus. Researchers are largely limited to asking questions about how someone is perceiving their tinnitus. This can of course be influenced by many factors including simply how someone is feeling at that moment in time. This means that from one day to another the tinnitus read out could change even though the actual underlying biological activity driving the tinnitus hasn’t. What we need are tests that allow researchers to reliably measure the tinnitus itself, not a person’s perception of it. This would allow researchers to reliably monitor the effectiveness of new treatments being developed.

With generous support from the Masonic Charitable Foundation one of our new PhD students at Newcastle University is attempting to develop a new way of measuring tinnitus to overcome these challenges. In theory, if a person has tinnitus, the tinnitus sound should influence how they hear real sounds in their environment. For instance, imagine a sequence of short sounds played one after the other with silent gaps in between. If a person was experiencing tinnitus the tinnitus sound would fill in the silent gaps so the actual sounds being played would no longer seem to have silent gaps in between. It is reasonable to assume that this would result in changes in the activity of parts of the brain that process sound. Could measuring this change in brain activity when listening to sequences of sound with silent gaps in between be a better way of measuring tinnitus and the effectiveness of new treatments?

One of our new students aims to find out. They will measure brain activity by placing small sensors on the scalp that can measure electrical activity in the brain. As there are many sensors it is possible to calculate what region of the brain is active. Using this technique they will investigate differences between people with and without tinnitus as they listen to sounds with silent gaps in between. They will optimise the test and examine its accuracy and reliability. We hope this research will prove pivotal in helping to develop treatments to silence tinnitus.

Other new projects

October saw three other Action on Hearing Loss PhD students start their projects. At University of Oxford, thanks to support from the Peter Jost Charitable Foundation, we are supporting a student whose project will help us better understand how the brain adapts to localising sounds when hearing is lost in one ear. Understanding this could lead to new training methods to help people who have hearing loss in one ear hear better.

At University of Sheffield we have a new student studying how the connections between the brain and cochlea change with age and whether this has a detrimental effect on hearing. Finally, in partnership with Cochlear Ltd we are supporting a student at the University of Cambridge to better understand how cochlear implants can be designed to minimise damage to the delicate structures within the cochlea. The shape of the cochlea varies between people, but this isn’t really taken into account when designing implants or selecting the type of implant to use. Our student’s research could help surgeons in the future select the optimal type of implant based on the particular shape of the person’s cochlea.

Developing future leaders

We have supported over 100 PhD students to date with many still involved in hearing research. Indeed, some are now international leaders in the field building world leading teams of researchers, training a new generation of scientists and attracting funding into hearing research. We are proud of the fantastic research teams we have in the UK working hard to find treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus, but we need many more. That’s why our PhD and Fellowship schemes are so important, helping to attract talented researchers in to hearing research and building future research capacity.

Support our work

We depend on your donations so we can fund the best hearing and tinnitus research around the world. Donate today and help us continue our vital work into hearing treatments, so that people can live life to the full again.

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