Tinnitus is the endlessly frustrating condition which causes ‘phantom sound’. Sufferers hear constant ringing, buzzing, or even music in their head, despite no external noise. The ailment has proved notoriously difficult to categorise, effecting sufferers very differently on a case-by case basis. From mildly annoying to seriously debilitating, 30 per cent of the global population will experience tinnitus to some degree in their lifetime. 10 per cent of people will suffer persistently with the condition.
There is no cure. Currently, most GPs advise that tinnitus will lessen over time, or at least that the sufferer will become used to the sound, and notice it less. On the NHS England website, for example, the only advice offered in terms of treatment is to try to relax, get more sleep and discuss the condition with other sufferers who may help you to cope. While these strategies are not without merit, there is no hard evidence of successful treatment. No concrete solution exists.
This is why I found myself so drawn to find a better way to treat tinnitus – one grounded in scientific study. Following a 13-year field of clinical research investigation to move tinnitus neuroscience research forward, we created a tool that can relieve the symptoms of tinnitus in patients, as proven through recent clinical trials.
The path that led me to work on tinnitus is a set of interesting events. I was initially an engineering student at the well-known French university Ecole Polytechnique, specialising in both entrepreneurship and neuroscience. Shortly after graduating, I obtained an intern position in a neuroscience start-up called Rythm, where I studied a brain imagery technique called electroencephalography (EEG). Then, I studied for a semester in UC Berkeley where I had the opportunity to collaborate with Professor John Chuang who was the director of the BioSense lab which specialised in the making and the signal analysis of in-ear EEG sensors. You can picture them as the earbuds of your earphones, except they can pick signals coming from your brain.
My devotion to this work began to take shape as I progressively specialized in neuroscience and audition. After I got back to Ecole Polytechnique in France, I had the initial intention of launching a project to blend in-ear EEG sensors and hearing aids to improve the quality of life of patients with hearing loss but after multiple interactions with French ENTs and notably my encounter with Dr Alain Londero, we were led to believe that tinnitus was actually a greater unresolved problem and that neuroscience could provide the solution.
I started digging and reviewing neuroscience papers on the matter of tinnitus and got hooked on the findings of Professor Nathan Weisz in 2005 and the repercussions it led to: he seemed to have identified brain activities that characterised chronic tinnitus and had developed a brain rehabilitation technique to renormalise the abnormal brain activities. Moreover, his work had been replicated by others (Crocetti, Hartmann, and later Güntenspenger) with similar and promising results (30 per cent reduction of tinnitus). I found that creating a tool that would enable clinicians and audiologist to treat patients with such a method could help a lot patients, especially in France, where it appeared to me no such attempts to replicate this work had been attempted.
After being awarded a €20,000 prize by the Ecole Polytechnique alumni organisation, together with two friends we launched a start-up project called Zeta Technologies to build this tool and try to deploy it. As it would be a medical tool, one essential step was to prove its efficiency. After a year of engineering we had created a brain rehabilitation tool consisting of an EEG cap, targeting the good brain regions and rhythms, streaming its measure in real time to a dedicated software program guiding the patient toward rehabilitation. We then launched a pilot clinical trial to assess the clinical potential of this method. The therapy consists of 10 sessions of training of one hour each over five weeks. We achieved great improvements for many of our subjects both objectively by observing important changes in their local brain activity thanks to training, and also subjectively as they described a reduction of their symptoms and the impact of tinnitus on their daily life. Our study finished in the beginning of November and although results are not published yet, it’s already clear that we obtained similar results as the scientific teams before us.
To have alleviated patient symptoms to such a significant degree after only a year and a half is hugely promising. My team and I are optimistic that through perfecting our technology we will be able to achieve even greater alleviation of the symptoms. One of our main fields of investigation is the personalisation of the treatment to more specific subgroups of tinnitus patients. We’ve also begun actively investigating the interaction between sleep and tinnitus and the value added by sound stimulation in the context of our treatment.
My team has now been nominated for a French prize worth €1,000,000 associated with Ecole Polytechnique. We are among the finalists and are very hopeful that we will be selected because pursuing our work with greater means will translate in a great leap forward for our field. Crucially, we’ll find ourselves a few steps closer to finding the solution to a condition which gravely damages the quality of life of a significant proportion of the population all over in the world.
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