You’re at a rock concert, listening to your favourite musician rip a guitar solo, or at a crowded nightclub, fist pumping to a blaring techno pop song. When you eventually leave, on top of fun memories (or lack thereof), you still have that ringing in your ears.
For Peter Phua, a medical student here at McMaster, this is exactly what happened.
Except the ringing didn’t go away.
Tinnitus is a condition characterized by a persistent ringing in the ears, most often a single tone (mono-frequency). “It’s like having a fire alarm go off in your head, all the time. It never stops,” said Phua.
In the beginning, the condition can cause chronic anxiety because, as it sounds like an alarm, tinnitus sets off the fear centre in the brain. Phua found it hard to listen in lectures and was unable to sleep properly.
The condition is caused when loud and constant exposure to noise kills sound-detection cells. As a result, your brain can no longer receive input from those cells. The neurons attempt to fill the absence by reconnecting and firing elsewhere, which causes the persistent ringing.
Although there is no cure for tinnitus, there are some fairly effective treatments. Phua was introduced to one such treatment, notched sound therapy, when speaking with a professor about his condition.
Invented independently by both Muenster University Hospital’s Wolfgang Stoll and Westfalian Wilhelms-University’s Henning Stracke and Christo Pantev, notched sound-therapy has proven quite successful, reducing perceived volume in some cases by 75 per cent in just a month.
Phua found that the treatment was not easily accessible, but is endeavouring to change this. Along with Adrian Green, a talented coder and high-school friend of Phua’s, Phua founded AudioNotch.
AudioNotch is a not-for-profit enterprise that offers tailored notched sound-therapy online at AudioNotch.com for it’s users.
“Our goal is to take research that was already out there and get it to the people,” explained Phua, who was joined enthusiastically by Green when he casually mentioned then-embryonic AudioNotch. Excited to provide much-needed easy-access treatment for tinnitus sufferers, they realized decidedly: “There’s no reason to wait – let’s use the power of the Internet.”
AudioNotch.com has been live for about two months now.
The program takes advantage of the fact that tinnitus rings at a single frequency. Notched sound therapy is engineered to play all but the frequencies surrounding that frequency. As a result, those neurons become active, and in turn inhibit the tinnitus neurons in a process called “lateral inhibition.”
When a user signs up for an account, they first use a sliding frequency scale from 0 Hz to 23,000 Hz to match what they’re hearing. Phua finds he gets a more accurate reading from this test than even professional testing he’s received.
Step two involves the construction of personalized notched sound. AudioNotch offers online notched white noise for free, and for a subscription fee, downloadable notched white noise, as well as the ability to convert your music collection into notched music.
The final step, which Phua stresses is the most important stage, is for the user to listen to their notched sound for several hours a day. “Beginning as early as a week to a month, they should see a reduction in their tinnitus volume,” he said.
“Our goal is to make people’s tinnitus quieter, and in that way help them,” said Phua, who knows first-hand just how distressing the condition can be.
The website is very user-friendly, and it works, according to its creators, exactly the way it was intended. Any unsatisfied user is entitled to a full refund.
Phua says the current challenge is making people aware of this new resource available to them.
“We believe in helping people,” said Phua.