Tinnitus, often known simply as ringing in the ears is a symptom with a wide array of causes, and its severity can range from a minor irritation to having a devastating effect on the sufferer, interfering with their daily lives and sleep patterns.
Treatments for tinnitus have, in the past, been sporadic in their success, but clinical trials are due to start towards the end of the year on a new treatment which could counter its debilitating effects.
The MuteButton device is based on the theory that subjective tinnitus is caused when the sufferer perceives an illusory sound created by the brain to fill the void left by hearing loss. To compensate for the frequencies the auditory system can no longer process, it creates these illusory sounds which manifest as ringing or hissing sounds.
The technology has been developed by former NUI Maynooth, Hamilton Institute research fellow Dr. Ross O’ Neill. It is the result of his PhD work which was undertaken alongside Dr. Paul O’ Grady and under the supervision of Professor Barak Pearlmutter. Their research was inspired by the work of the late Professor Paul Bach-y-Rita, whom Ross refers to as, “the grandfather of sensory substitution”.
The MuteButton technology takes audio information and represents it in patterns of touch, explains Ross, so that the brain can differentiate between the same information in real and illusory form.
“Where there’s a deficit in the ear, and the sound falls below a certain threshold, the brain creates this illusory noise to fill the vacuum, but when you take the missing sound and put it on a tactile stimulator on the tongue, it addresses the information deficit and reduces the illusory perception.
“It tends to reduce the symptoms, so what we’re trying to find out now is if it actually does get rid of it completely? We’re ramping up towards big trials that will hopefully give us a better indication of how effective this treatment is.”
Ross describes the device as being, “like an iPod with one extra output,” and the relatively non-intrusive process will involve listening to music.
“You’ve got the headphones that go to your ears and the other output is an intra-aural sensor array that you put your tongue against, and while you hear the music in your ears you simultaneously feel these tactile patterns on your tongue similar to a braille pattern. Where braille represents alpha-numeric characters, this represents the component wavelengths of sound.
“You take the device, you listen to it with the array on your tongue, from anywhere to half an hour twice a day, or maybe a couple of hours; that’s something we’ll find out at the trials; and that would be your treatment basically.
“You would use this device on a daily basis to listen to sound and or music and then gradually over time, you’re driving a process called neuro-plasticity to get your brain to re-wire and adjust and filter out the illusory sounds on a more permanent basis.”
The trials, partly funded by €200,000 in funding from Enterprise Ireland, will be conducted in conjunction with Ear, Nose and Throat consultant Mr. Brendan Conlon of St. James’ Hospital, Dublin, and around two hundred patients are already lined up to test the device.
The number of people who have signed up for trials is indicative of the frustration felt by tinnitus sufferers, and Ross is sympathetic to their plight; though it is a common complaint, often its effects are underestimated.
“Tinnitus is quite an unusual problem. It doesn’t meet with a lot of sympathy or empathy from people, because I suppose it’s on the inside, people can’t see it. When you say to somebody, “I’ve got a ringing in my ears”, most people have experienced temporary tinnitus after a night at a nightclub or whatever and they kind of think, “how bad can it be?”
“There aren’t a great deal of effective treatments out there for them, so there are a lot of people who are becoming increasingly desperate and they are basically all on the look out for something.”
With the MuteButton team now ensconced in the NovaUCD incubation centre and actively preparing for trials, many of these eyes will be turned expectantly towards Dublin over the next year.
Additional material supplied by Ina O’ Murchu.