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Mehrnaz Shoushtarian from the Bionics InstituteA major obstacle to developing better treatments for tinnitus is the lack of a test or measure that can objectively assess whether someone has tinnitus and how severe it is. Making tinnitus measurable allows researchers to more easily assess the effectiveness of new treatments and meet the expectations of regulators in order to get those treatments to market.

We spoke with Mehrnaz Shoushtarian (PhD) from the Bionics Institute in Australia, who are working on an objective measure of tinnitus based on Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and a machine learning program. They believe that their technique will not only be able to distinguish whether someone has tinnitus or not, but also how loud it is.

We cover the technical ins and outs of the objective measure, the underlying theories the work is based on, the future commercialisation of the technique, and the ultimate impact the Bionics Institute is hoping for.

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Skip to: 00:00 Introducing Mehrnaz Shoustarian and the Bionics Institute.

Skip to: 06:00 Objective measurement of tinnitus.

Without an objective measure it’s difficult to know what treatments are actually affecting which parts of the brain and are actually working or not. So, having an objective measure is an important step in developing reliable treatments.

Skip to: 12:08 The underlying theory.

Skip to: 16:23 Measuring mild versus severe tinnitus.

Some of the signal features that we have looked at correlate well, for example, with how loud they have rated their tinnitus but not so well with how annoying they rated it, which is promising because it suggests that we can separate those two effects with the recordings that we are doing.

Skip to: 22:28 Which areas of the brain are you investigating?

Skip to: 31:45 Comparison against other objective tinnitus measures.

Skip to: 35:31 Current phase of the research.

A challenge that we are working through at the moment is that we need more funding and more testing sites. With more funding, we can set up testing sites in different locations and be able to collect data faster.

Skip to: 41:52 Funding and partnerships.

Skip to: 44:46 Future roll-out and commercialization.

Skip to: 51:40 How the tinnitus community can get involved.

Skip to: 54:27 Expected impact on the lives of tinnitus sufferers.

Discuss this episode on the Tinnitus Talk Forum, or submit a reply below.

Comments (7)
  1. I still think tinnitus is usually an ear pathology, where the neurology are all correlates of having a faulty set of ears. That being said, I donated.

    • You’re not wrong. I believe most researchers would say it’s a complex interaction between ear and brain pathology. If it were just a problem of the ears, everyone with hearing loss would have tinnitus. But I’m no expert and certainly willing to stand corrected. Most importantly, we really appreciate your donation!

  2. There seems to be no distinction in the research between TRAUMATIC tinnitus (which I have experienced for 62 years, 24/7) and what (for lack of a better term) I will refer to as PHANTOM tinnitus. I have been taught that traumatic tinnitus is caused by prolonged exposure to extreme noise — gunfire, in my case, although there are periodic mentions of extremely loud rock music as a cause. It supposedly has a perfectly sensible PHYSICAL cause. In brief, what I have been taught is that the cochlea is lined with microscopic “cups,” and that a tiny hair protrudes from the opposite side of the cochlea, where it is anchored, and ordinarily rests within the “cup” without touching it. External noise causes the hair to vibrate, approaching (or touching) the inner surface of the “cup,” creating a nerve response that travels along the auditory nerve and which the brain translates as sound. But extreme noise levels create vibration so violent as to knock the hair out of the “cup,” resting on its outer edge and creating permanent noise signals — tinnitus. White noise from thousands of tiny hairs permanently in a state of generating noise signals.

    “Phantom” tinnitus, however, is reported when the patient can relate no history of noise sufficiently loud to create traumatic tinnitus. In other words, the tinnitus has some other cause, notionally within the brain itself.

    Virtually 100% of combat veterans experience some level of traumatic tinnitus — the potential market for a treatment is correspondingly vast. (To say nothing of the equal — or greater — number of extreme rock aficionados who have deafened themselves. And given themselves tinnitus.)

    In directing his research exclusively to the auditory structures in the brain, Dr. Shoustarian is excluding a very large number of tinnitus sufferers.

    • Andrew, I don’t believe anyone is excluded in this research. There is plenty of evidence to prove that the brains of people with tinnitus look different from those without tinnitus, regardless of whether the cause is noise exposure or something else. You’re right that there are different causes, but it’s ultimately the brain that turns faulty input into a tinnitus signal; this is the case for all tinnitus sufferers.

  3. This is very informative, and sounds progressive in nature for gaining hope for us that live with tinnitus, and have for decades.
    However, I live in the U.S., and I would pay to see a specialist who could test me with (fNIRS), specifically, California.

    The last brain scan/MRI I had, showed a completely normal brain.
    My ENT says my ears are ‘normal’.
    My Audiologist confirms hearing loss.

    I go back and forth believing it’s a brain problem/defect, or an inner ear dysfunction. I believe it may be both.

    I cannot sleep with complete quiet. Dishes touching the granite counter tops too roughly, agitate me. Loud noises of children, keep me from restaurants.
    And so it goes…

    It effects my every day life, it is a pathology I live with, a lot like a person who may have diabetes, or who suffers from migraines; you learn to cope and endure.

    If I can move forward with treatment, please contact me, I would be willing to travel.

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