Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, is the perception of sound when none is present. It is a major problem for war fighters due to combat noise trauma and operations in other noisy environments such as ships and aircraft. There is however, no objective means to measure its severity. For Phase I of this Army SBIR program, Acentech teamed with Professor Martin Lenhardt, a world-known expert in the field, and under his guidance a behavior-based measurement methodology was developed – based on a previously identified difficulty that Tinnitus patients have in tracking audiometric tones.
A prototype device consisting of a digital version of a Bekesy audiometer was developed for a PC tablet. It presents the patient with a series of tones of increasing frequency in response to which the patient is instructed to push a button, and to release the button when the tone has stopped. The tones become softer once the button is pushed and louder once it is released, and the result over a complete sweep of frequencies is a version of a standard audiogram. However, toward the end of the test the tones are stopped without the patient’s knowledge. Those with Tinnitus are not able to track the change and continue to press the button in response to their perceptions. This device was tested on a number of Acentech volunteers in the Cambridge office.
Younger staff members with no Tinnitus did not respond to the quiet periods, while more senior staff with various degrees of hearing loss and Tinnitus continued to respond. While the number of tests was small, there was a correlation between self-reported Tinnitus severity and the number of “wrong” button presses. Given these results, the device was deemed to have successfully met its Phase I objective of demonstrating feasibility. However, due to budgetary constraints, the Army has scaled back this program and Acentech does not currently have funding to continue its development.