Unmasking phantom sounds
The tree falling in the forest does not make a sound — if you ask a neuroscientist.
The sensation of sound exists only in our mind. This means we can also hear a sound without any falling trees. You may have experienced this as ringing ears after a loud concert, for example.
For most people, this ringing ends. But for more than 100 million people worldwide living with chronic tinnitus, ever-present “phantom sounds” can be distressing, debilitating — and, with no effective treatment, incurable.
The 2018 Spotlight finalist Towards an Understanding of Tinnitus Heterogeneity explores the diversity of tinnitus sufferers and their circumstances, with an equally diverse approach to research and treatment. In all, 78 articles were contributed by 331 researchers from across the medical sciences — geneticists, neuroscientists and pharmacologists — as well as clinicians and even software engineers and data scientists.
These articles have already received more than 2 million views, 27,000 article downloads and 3,600 shares on social media: an emphatic reflection of the enormous interest in, and relevance of, this research.
Dr Christopher Cederroth and Dr Winfried Schlee explain why they and fellow members of the Tinnitus Research Initiative (TRI) and the EU-funded TINNET project launched this Research Topic, some of its outcomes, and what winning the 2018 Frontiers Spotlight Award would mean for the field and for patients.
Why was this research topic created?
“Tinnitus is common, affecting more than 10% of people — mostly aged 40 to 80. It is also costly: at least 1% of patients suffer from severe tinnitus that can lead to depression, anxiety or sleeping and concentration problems,” explain Cederroth and Schlee.
People with tinnitus hear ringing, buzzing, roaring or hissing. This usually occurs following hearing loss or ear damage, similarly to the pain felt in amputated ‘phantom limbs’. The phantom sounds can come from changes anywhere along the complex neural pathway from ear to brain and back again — and even from cross-links with other senses.
“These brain changes also interact with a host of other cognitive factors like attention, mood and memory. This means the both the pathophysiology and subjective experience of tinnitus varies from patient to patient — and so there is no uniformly effective treatment.”
Understanding and treating the disease therefore requires multidisciplinary collaboration.
“A Frontiers Research Topic was the perfect medium for this. It is the first time in tinnitus research that so many different scientific disciplines have worked together.
“We also wanted to publish our work open-access to make the results of tinnitus research available for everybody — not only researchers and clinicians but also tinnitus patients and their relatives — with the hope of impacting the treatment of millions of tinnitus sufferers in our society.”
What type of research is included?
Towards an Understanding of Tinnitus Heterogeneity brings together human and animal studies using the latest techniques from fields as diverse as data analysis, surgery, pharmacology and commercial product evaluation.
“These disciplines converge to help us understand how tinnitus develops, how it is influenced by emotional states and other factors, who is vulnerable and the contribution of specific gene variants, the pathophysiological and molecular mechanisms involved, how we can measure tinnitus objectively, how we can improve and target existing treatment interventions, and how we can improve and standardize clinical outcome measures.”
What are some of the outcomes of this Research Topic?
This diversity is the crowning achievement of the Topic, agree Cederroth and Schlee.
“This is a milestone event in our young field, that gathers researchers from different disciplines ‘around the table.’
“Since we began the research in this Topic, our team has already grown rapidly. Among the articles is the curriculum of one of two new graduate schools on tinnitus, each with 15 PhD students — a first-time achievement for tinnitus research.”
The volume has also achieved singular success in disseminating its findings to a broad audience. This was fueled by an impassioned social media campaign, close collaboration with patient organizations and even a Frontiers for Young Minds article to explain tinnitus research to children.
“Tinnitus sufferers are in such need of new treatments, they often want the most recent research as fast as scientists do.”
Of the many extremely interesting results, Cederroth and Schlee highlight a few in particular.
One is support for the use of combination therapies in tinnitus.
“One-third of the articles evaluated tinnitus treatments like sound therapy, cochlear implants and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Three of these propose that novel combinatorial therapies — such as CBT plus repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation — may provide better relief than a single therapy alone.”
Another important breakthrough is the involvement of patients in research to help better understand tinnitus.
“The publication by Probst and colleagues presents new ways of doing tinnitus research by including patient discussion forums and smartphone applications. This study shows the benefits of scientific cooperation between clinical researchers and patient organizations.”
Another popular article — with 12 citations already — demonstrates the existence of a relatively hidden burden of the disease: decreased ‘speech-in-noise reception’ in young adults with tinnitus associated with loud music exposure.
“Affected people in their late teens and twenties had greater difficulty understanding speech with background noise compared to their healthy peers, despite having no measurable peripheral hearing damage.”
Why should this Research Topic win the 2018 Spotlight Award?
Winning the 2018 Frontiers Spotlight Award — with a prize of US $100,000 to fund a conference on the Topic — would provide validation and promotion of this collaborative, multidisciplinary and patient-centered approach to tinnitus research, argue Cederroth and Schlee.
“The objectives of the conference would be to gather not only tinnitus experts and patient organizations, but also industry partners, political representatives, clinicians and media. The theme should therefore put a spotlight on the cohesion of these many parties as an international team, working together to better understand tinnitus and find a cure for it.”
They also hope the exposure will enhance global recognition of the researchers’ endeavors toward finding a cure for tinnitus.
“This is important not only for attracting and retaining talent, but to encourage funding — for instance, to enable clinicians to create large biobanks and repositories, and work hand-in-hand to solve the tinnitus riddle.”
About the Frontiers Spotlight Award
The annual Frontiers Spotlight Award supports emerging and important fields of research published as a Research Topic in Frontiers journals. The winning team of Topic Editors receives US$100,000 to organize an international scientific conference on the theme of their successful Research Topic. Learn more about the Award
About Frontiers Research Topics
Research Topics are peer-reviewed article collections published around specialized themes. They bring together leading researchers from different institutions, locations and fields of interest, who collaborate and contribute articles.
Published on Frontiers’ award-winning platform, Research Topics are fully open and accessible, and become highly visible collections of work, enhancing both the readership and citations of articles. Learn more about Research Topics
How to enter
Every Research Topic that closes within the award period and is completed with at least 10 articles, will be considered for the Spotlight Award. Shape your field and have the chance to organize your own conference – suggest your Research Topic today!
Research Topic Editors