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Developing an objective test for tinnitus

Ekaterina Yukhnovich is a PhD student in Dr William Sedley’s laboratory at Newcastle University. Her project started in October 2019. This studentship is being supported by the Masonic Charitable Foundation.

The top research priority highlighted by people with tinnitus is always to find a treatment to stop it. Unfortunately, we are still a long way from achieving a cure for tinnitus. A major limiting factor is that we do not have a reliable way to ‘objectively’ measure tinnitus – a way that isn’t affected by a personal judgement, either by the person with tinnitus or the person measuring it. This lack of an objective test makes it very difficult to study tinnitus effectively, or to measure any changes in people’s tinnitus following treatment. This means that we cannot reliably monitor the effectiveness of tinnitus treatments.

In theory, if a person has tinnitus, the tinnitus sound will influence how they hear actual sounds present in their environment. For instance, imagine a sequence of short sounds playing one after the other with silent gaps in between. The tinnitus sound will “fill in” the silent gaps, and so the person will hear a single ongoing sound. This ongoing sound would also change intermittently in pitch, character and/or loudness, because the real sounds being played would be alternating with the tinnitus sound.

This change in a sequence of sounds (i.e. real sounds alternating with the tinnitus sound) can also influence how the brain processes sound. This can be seen in changes in the electrical activity of the brain, which is easily measurable from a person’s scalp. Initial work by Dr Sedley has shown that measuring changes in brain activity when someone is listening to a sequence of sounds can tell the difference between people with tinnitus and people who do not have it. Thus, it shows promise as an objective way to measure tinnitus in people, as well as in animals, which is vital for developing effective treatments.

Project aims

The aim of this project is to further develop this potential objective test for tinnitus. Ekaterina will use a brain imaging method called electroencephalography (EEG). She will use it to measure changes in brain activity of people with and without tinnitus while they listen to sounds as described above.

She will improve the test and assess how reliable it is over time (that is, do you get the same result in the same person on different days?). Ekaterina will also examine how accurate the test is and its ability to tell whether a person has tinnitus or not. She will also examine if the test can track changes in tinnitus, from when it begins to when it develops into chronic tinnitus, over time.

Expected impact

A reliable objective test of tinnitus is an essential step towards the ultimate goal of a cure for tinnitus, or a widely effective treatment. Developing an objective test for tinnitus through this project will help us understand the mechanisms underlying tinnitus, which new treatments could then target. A reliable way to measure tinnitus will also encourage greater research investment in tinnitus, and help to bridge the divide between early studies in animals and clinical trials in patients.