In-ear headphone solution to help with tinnitus

Tinnitus damage could be detected early with brainwave-sensor headphone upgrade

Image credit: Plextek

A simple device that can be integrated into consumer headphones could help to detect early ear-damage before it develops into untreatable tinnitus.

The device, essentially an electronic circuit board, sends clicks into people’s ears - for example, while they are listening to music - and detects the brain waves generated in response.

“We are looking at the so-called ABR waveforms [there are five primary ABR waveform components], which is the brain’s response to sound,” explained Collette Johnson, Medical and Healthcare Director at Plextek, the Cambridge-based engineering firm which developed the technology.

“In people with tinnitus there are changes in what we call the wave five and we can detect those changes before the person actually develops symptoms of tinnitus.”

That, according to Johnson, is a major breakthrough. No existing technology currently enables the detection of such damage before the person develops the characteristic buzzing in the ears that indicates tinnitus.

The problem is that once the symptoms are there, nothing can be done.

“There is no treatment, there is no pharmaceutical, there is no drug, you can have sound therapy that helps you deal with the effects of tinnitus, but there is nothing that would be able to reverse that damage,” said Johnson.

“People tend to have a lot of insomnia, they have sleep problems, they may develop other sorts of chronic issues that prevent them from working because of the noise in their ears.”

Tinnitus, traditionally a problem of those working in noisy environments, such as rock musicians, soldiers or construction workers, is also spreading fast among the music-loving younger generation frequently plugged into headphones, listening to music at an excessive volume.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that some 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults around the world are at risk of developing some form of hearing damage due to the excessive use of personal audio devices, including smartphones, and exposure to damaging levels of sound at noisy entertainment venues such as nightclubs, bars and sporting events.

In response to concerns about early hearing loss because of this trend, smartphone manufacturers such as Apple now incorporate colour-warning indications in a device’s volume-level graphic to warn the user when they may be cranking the volume up too high: yellow for a warning, red for dangerously loud levels.

In developing countries, nearly 50 per cent of teenagers and young adults aged 12 to 35 regularly expose themselves to unsafe levels of noise from their devices, the WHO says.

Johnson envisions that these teenagers and young adults could mostly benefit from the technology if it became a regular part of commercially available earphones.

“We would like to see people using it whenever they are listening to music,” said Johnson. “The device would send those clicks into the user’s ear once a day or once a week and we would feed the response into an app. If a change in the wave five response was detected over time, the app would alert the user and warn them to change their habits.”

Some 300 million people worldwide suffer from tinnitus, according to recent estimates. Hearing loss has a big impact on people’s lives and, while irreversible, it is in 50 per cent of cases easily preventable, the WHO says.

“By placing easily accessible detection technology within consumer products, everyone can constantly self-monitor and act quickly on a condition like tinnitus that often has life-changing effects on sufferers,” Johnson concluded.

Plextek patented the technology earlier this year and hopes to find commercial partners to drive adoption of the device.

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