Sensing Auditory Evoked Potentials

Protecting Against Tinnitus With Big Data

Thomas Rouse - Senior Consultant, Medical & Healthcare

By: Thomas Rouse
Senior Consultant, Medical & Healthcare

30th August 2017

Home » Tinnitus

We are being continuously monitored in our daily lives; from search engines tracking browsing habits, shops analysing purchases via loyalty cards or online accounts, and social media targeting adverts based upon our friends, conversations, and activities. While we may accept this as the cost of entry to the modern world, few would deny that it is evocative of a dystopian, Big Brotheresque hierarchy, where the monitoring is unlikely to be for our benefit. Health monitoring may be a nobler goal, however even a seemingly altruistic project, DeepMind’s collaboration with the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust to reduce preventable deaths from acute kidney incidents, has fallen foul of the public perception and the Information Commissioner’s Office.

There is a lot of excitement about data-driven health innovation, especially where the data can be collected automatically, and potentially uploaded or aggregated. This could allow for improved outcomes, more accurate diagnoses, early warning of conditions, advanced recovery monitoring, fewer hospital visits, and ultimately revolutionise the understanding and treatment of many diseases and conditions.

We have developed a wonderful technology which is able to automatically provide detailed characterisation of a user’s auditory system by detecting electrical signals from the cochlea and auditory brainstem. No more user interaction is required other than putting on a set of headphones, and no clinical supervision is necessary. It can detect permanent or temporary changes, and, with regular use at home or work, provide early warning of the onset of hearing loss and tinnitus.

The applications are driven by who wants to use the data, and why. The technology was originally developed to allow employers more cost effectively and conveniently meet their health surveillance duty, under the ‘The Control of Noise at Work Regulations. Workers with high levels of noise exposure need to have regular audiometric tests. It may be disruptive or impractical to send staff to a testing centre. There are also requirements after the tests have taken place. The purpose of the regulations is to protect workers, and if an issue is detected, action should be taken to prevent further damage.

The employer must also keep health records of the outcome of the surveillance; however, these cannot contain any confidential medical records. With our technology, these tasks can be automated without any need to leave the workplace. Beyond compliance, there is also a potential upside for the employer if testing can be made before and after each shift. In a case of litigation relating to hearing loss, it is likely that it could be shown whether the damage occurred inside or outside of work hours.

Individuals may be concerned about their own or their loved one’s hearing. Building the technology into consumer headphones was also one of the original motivations. For example, a smartphone app would be able to take regular snapshots of a user’s hearing and alert them or a parent if there is any change, long before symptoms become apparent.

Medical trials of drugs which may have a side effect of tinnitus would be able to use the technology to objectively monitor and record the state of the auditory system instead of having to rely on the subject’s subjective assessment.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, the data could allow the technology itself to improve. This double-edged information sword needs to be handled carefully. It is essential that no-one feels their data has been abused, so this needs to be balanced with the potentially significant benefits. The signal we record was previously only obtainable by an expert practitioner in a clinic, so comparative studies over time are limited. Long term data from a large number of subjects is likely to improve system performance and the wider understanding. It may shed light upon insidious conditions, such as hidden hearing loss and tinnitus, and provide a vital additional tool for audiologists as part of an integrated healthcare system.

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We are being continuously monitored in our daily lives; from search engines tracking browsing habits, shops analysing purchases via loyalty cards or online accounts, and social media targeting adverts based upon our friends, conversations, and activities. While we may accept this as the cost of entry to the modern world, few would deny that it is evocative of a dystopian, Big Brotheresque hierarchy, where the monitoring is unlikely to be for our benefit. Health monitoring may be a nobler goal, however even a seemingly altruistic project, DeepMind’s collaboration with the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust to reduce preventable deaths from acute kidney incidents, has fallen foul of the public perception and the Information Commissioner’s Office.

There is a lot of excitement about data-driven health innovation, especially where the data can be collected automatically, and potentially uploaded or aggregated. This could allow for improved outcomes, more accurate diagnoses, early warning of conditions, advanced recovery monitoring, fewer hospital visits, and ultimately revolutionise the understanding and treatment of many diseases and conditions.

We have developed a wonderful technology which is able to automatically provide detailed characterisation of a user’s auditory system by detecting electrical signals from the cochlea and auditory brainstem. No more user interaction is required other than putting on a set of headphones, and no clinical supervision is necessary. It can detect permanent or temporary changes, and, with regular use at home or work, provide early warning of the onset of hearing loss and tinnitus.

The applications are driven by who wants to use the data, and why. The technology was originally developed to allow employers more cost effectively and conveniently meet their health surveillance duty, under the ‘The Control of Noise at Work Regulations. Workers with high levels of noise exposure need to have regular audiometric tests. It may be disruptive or impractical to send staff to a testing centre. There are also requirements after the tests have taken place. The purpose of the regulations is to protect workers, and if an issue is detected, action should be taken to prevent further damage.

The employer must also keep health records of the outcome of the surveillance; however, these cannot contain any confidential medical records. With our technology, these tasks can be automated without any need to leave the workplace. Beyond compliance, there is also a potential upside for the employer if testing can be made before and after each shift. In a case of litigation relating to hearing loss, it is likely that it could be shown whether the damage occurred inside or outside of work hours.

Individuals may be concerned about their own or their loved one’s hearing. Building the technology into consumer headphones was also one of the original motivations. For example, a smartphone app would be able to take regular snapshots of a user’s hearing and alert them or a parent if there is any change, long before symptoms become apparent.

Medical trials of drugs which may have a side effect of tinnitus would be able to use the technology to objectively monitor and record the state of the auditory system instead of having to rely on the subject’s subjective assessment.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, the data could allow the technology itself to improve. This double-edged information sword needs to be handled carefully. It is essential that no-one feels their data has been abused, so this needs to be balanced with the potentially significant benefits. The signal we record was previously only obtainable by an expert practitioner in a clinic, so comparative studies over time are limited. Long term data from a large number of subjects is likely to improve system performance and the wider understanding. It may shed light upon insidious conditions, such as hidden hearing loss and tinnitus, and provide a vital additional tool for audiologists as part of an integrated healthcare system.

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• Device by Plextek proven to detect and alert consumers to the very early warning signs of tinnitus – a condition affecting 300 million people worldwide 

• First-ever consumer headphone integration takes tinnitus testing and prevention out of the clinical environment and makes it accessible to all

Cambridge, UK – 11th April 2017 – A new innovation developed by UK-based engineering and design consultancy Plextek could soon have a far-reaching impact on the early diagnosis and treatment of debilitating hearing conditions such as tinnitus, that currently affects over 300 million people worldwide.

Plextek’s new prototype has been designed for integration within standard everyday consumer headphones and has been proven to reliably detect the early signs of tinnitus – well before a person would become aware of the symptoms. By syncing with a smartphone app the technology could also be used to alert the wearer to a potential problem and encourage them to seek out early medical help or take preventative action.

According to the World Health Organisation, 50% of all hearing issues would be preventable with some form of primary intervention. However, existing technologies used to detect conditions like tinnitus are currently restricted to use within clinical and hospital environments and therefore are only used during intermittent health checks or when patients are already experiencing advanced symptoms.

The integration of Plextek’s solution into commonly used in-ear consumer headphones removes this clinical barrier and can play a game-changing preventative role in the treatment of tinnitus, while also particularly benefitting those within high-risk environments such as loud noise environments, the military or music venues.

Plextek’s solution works by accurately monitoring subtle changes to ‘Auditory Evoked Potentials’ (AEP) – a signal sent from the brain by an acoustical stimulus that measures an individual’s auditory ability level. Using a standard laptop and USB audio card, the tests proved it was possible to record ABR waveforms using in-ear headphones, with the experiments using everyday brands such as Sennheiser and Sony, to successfully demonstrate its mass audience appeal. A video demonstrating its use case can be found here.

Collette Johnson, Director of Medical & Healthcare at Plextek: “For those not within perceived high-risk environments such as the military, the danger of hearing damage is not always immediately obvious. However, our modern lifestyle has meant loud music and noise pollution is commonplace, resulting in a large amount of the population suffering from hearing problems. 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.”

Tinnitus, often called ‘ringing in the ears’, is the common health condition in which a person can for hear sounds that come from within their body, including buzzing, humming and whistling. While typically not a serious health condition, it can cause stress and insomnia for sufferers and is often difficult to fully cure. Currently, one in ten people suffers from persistent tinnitus within the UK, according to official NHS statistics.

Notes to editors

Based near Cambridge, UK, Plextek designs new products, systems, and services for its clients in a diverse range of industries including defence & security, medical & healthcare, and wireless communications.

Central to its culture is the company’s ability to innovate, taking an idea from concept to market. For more than 25 years the team of consultants, engineers and project managers has turned our clients’ business opportunities into commercial success, designing, manufacturing and supplying leading-edge products. Supported by our network of suppliers, commercial partners and research organisations, Plextek is the trusted partner of choice for more than 300 commercial clients, government agencies, and ambitious start-up companies.

For images, information or interview requests, please contact: Adam Roberts via email: press@plextek.com or call: 01799 533200