New Device Helps Objectively Detect Tinnitus For First Time

Woman receiving ear exam by doctor.

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Scientists found a way to objectively measure tinnitus, also known as a persistent ringing in the ears, for the first time.
  • The technology measures brain activity and can determine how severe a person's case of tinnitus is.
  • Researchers are hopeful this tool will improve diagnosis and treatment options for the condition, which is linked to sleep disturbances, anxiety, and depression.

Researchers have developed a new technology that can objectively measure the painful condition of ringing in the ears—the first device to do so.

Scientists and engineers from the Bionics Institute and Deakin University in Australia used a non-invasive brain imaging technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) on subjects with and without tinnitus to measure changes in their brain oxygen levels when exposed to sound and light.

People with tinnitus can experience ringing, whistling, or buzzing in the ears—which can lead to sleep disturbances, anxiety, and depression. 

"Currently, there is no reliable objective measure of tinnitus that is used clinically, and personal reports of the disorder are often the only factor on which a doctor can base their diagnosis and treatment," Mehrnaz Shoushtarian, PhD, a biomedical engineer and lead researcher on the technology, tells Verywell. "Our test will allow more accurate assessment of the condition, and is an important step in developing effective treatments and showing which treatments work."

What This Means For You

There have not been any objective diagnostic tools for tinnitus, but new technology has successfully measured brain activity in people with the condition in hopes of better understanding it. Experts believe that if they can determine how severe a person's case of tinnitus is, they can improve treatment options.

Brain Response

Shoushtarian and her team used fNIRS on 25 people with chronic tinnitus and 21 people without. They asked participants to put on a cap that measured brain activity and showed them both visual and auditory stimuli. Participants were then asked to rate how loud or annoying the stimuli were as researchers watched how their brains responded. 

The researchers ran the data through a program that was able to differentiate patients with slight or mild tinnitus from those with moderate to severe cases with 87% accuracy.

The results demonstrated that people with tinnitus had a different brain response to the stimuli than the people without the condition. The brains of people with tinnitus showed a “dampened” response to light and sound.  

"Our research aims to quantify the severity of tinnitus," Shoushtarian says. "An objective test will provide key information to clinicians to [understand] whether treatments are working, or whether a change of treatment is needed."

What Causes Tinnitus?

Approximately 50 to 60 million Americans have tinnitus, but the condition is more common in older adults. There are two types of tinnitus. The most common type is subjective (which accounts for 99% of cases). In this type, only the sufferer can hear the noise. A much smaller number of people experience objective tinnitus, which is when others can also hear the noise. The sounds heard in objective tinnitus are usually caused by internal functions in the body.

Tinnitus is a symptom rather than a disease. It's associated with many conditions, such as hearing loss, blockages in the ear canal, head or neck injuries, and sinus pressure.

Richard Tyler, PhD, an audiologist and professor of otolaryngology at the University of Iowa, tells Verywell that the conditions most often related to tinnitus are noise exposure, conditions related to aging, and medications. He adds that “A lot of the causes are simply unknown."

Tinnitus can occur when there’s damage to the inner ear hair cells. These hair cells help transform sound waves into electrical signals that the brain reads as sounds. When hairs inside the inner ear are damaged, the brain doesn't receive the signals properly which can cause the illusion of sound. 

COVID-19 and Tinnitus

Some COVID-19 patients say that the infection has either caused tinnitus or for those who had it already, made it worse. Tyler says that stress is known to affect tinnitus, meaning it makes sense that people with the condition could experience a flare-up if they test positive for COVID-19. 

Some research suggests that COVID-19 can cause hearing issues. One report found that 13% of patients reported a change in hearing and/or tinnitus since being diagnosed with the disease.

Another case study of a COVID-19 patient reported that the 45-year-old experienced left-sided tinnitus and sudden-onset hearing loss while being treated for the disease in the hospital. 

Experts say that more research is needed to better understand the relationship between hearing and COVID-19 infection.

What Tinnitus Feels Like

A ringing sound in the ears is common in people with tinnitus, but people can also hear other sounds including:

  • Hissing
  • Screeching
  • Humming
  • Whooshing
  • Roaring
  • Whistling
  • Buzzing
  • Chirping

Even though it’s primarily referred to as an auditory condition, it can also cause sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression, trouble concentrating, and fatigue.

When a patient first experiences tinnitus, it can be distressing. “It's quite reasonable that patients are upset because they hear this thing that's not supposed to be there," Tyler says. "They have no control over it."

Diagnosing Tinnitus

There are several ways to diagnose tinnitus. The condition is often associated with hearing loss, which means that healthcare providers will often run general hearing tests to determine a patient's overall hearing quality first. 

Shoushtarian’s technology is the first to objectively test for tinnitus; currently, there are no other ways to objectively assess the condition. Providers can use various auditory and movement tests, and in some cases, MRI and CT scans will be done. 

Shoushtarian says that identifying subtypes of tinnitus remains one of the major challenges for clinical management. She hopes that her team’s technology will improve research in this area.

“In the long run, our test could help identify subtypes with similar underlying mechanisms (e.g., tinnitus due to noise-induced hearing loss versus age-related hearing loss), assisting in the development of appropriate treatments," she says.

How Tinnitus Is Treated

There is no cure for tinnitus, but it can be treated. The treatment used depends on the possible cause or association of your tinnitus. For example, if your tinnitus is linked to earwax buildup, removing the earwax can help. If your medication could be causing tinnitus, your provider might recommend reducing your dose or switching to another drug.

Hearing devices can also be helpful, as can sound machines and sound therapy. At Tyler’s clinic, they treat patients using the Tinnitus Activities Treatments program which is a combination of counseling and sound therapy. The counseling part is divided into four modules that focus on thoughts and emotions, hearing, sleep, and concentration.

Tyler says that treating the condition in a holistic way that includes psychological counseling is important because tinnitus can cause mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. 

“I think it is wonderful that many clinicians around the world are getting more involved in providing counseling sessions for patients,” Tyler says.

Most patients are upset by their tinnitus at first because of the effects it can have on their wellbeing. Tyler says that with the proper tools and treatments, the condition can become more manageable.

“Hearing aids can be very helpful for tinnitus patients, as well as improving your hearing ability," Tyler says. "We also know that using background sound therapy, often embedded on hearing aids, but sometimes independent, can also help patients. There are some good things that people can do.”

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Shoushtarian M, Alizadehsani R, Khosravi A, Acevedo N, McKay CM, Nahavandi S, et al. Objective measurement of tinnitus using functional near-infrared spectroscopy and machine learning. Dalla Mora A, ed. PLoS ONE. 2020;15(11). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0241695

  2. Harvard Health Publishing. Tinnitus: Ringing in the ears and what to do about it.

  3. American Tinnitus Association. Understanding the Facts.

  4. Munro KJ, Uus K, Almufarrij I, Chaudhuri N, Yioe V. Persistent self-reported changes in hearing and tinnitus in post-hospitalisation COVID-19 casesIntern J Audiol. 2020 July. doi:10.1080/14992027.2020.1798519

  5. Koumpa FS, Forde CT, Manjaly JG. Sudden irreversible hearing loss post COVID-19. BMJ Case Reports CP. 2020;13(11). doi:10.1136/bcr-2020-238419

By Laura Hensley
Laura Hensley is an award-winning lifestyle journalist who has worked in some of the largest newsrooms in Canada.