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Could Gaming Be The Treatment for Tinnitus?

gaming tinnitus immersive therapy

Developed out of research work at CentraleSupélec and Cognac-G (Unit of The French National Center for Scientific Research CNRS), startup company Immersive Therapy unveils Diapason, a solution that makes daily life easier for the 10% of the population – including an increasing number of young people – affected by tinnitus. Diapason is an app that learns and analyses the ear and the level of tinnitus, then offers a self-administered user pathway based on “serious gaming”, to provide long-term care for tinnitus sufferers in the form of a 15-minute game every day for between three and four months.

Could tinnitus be the new disease of the century? Tinnitus affects 10% of the world’s population, with 2% of patients suffering the debilitating chronic form of the condition. Around 100,000 new cases of tinnitus have been recorded every year of the last decade in France, with the overall age of the population falling consistently over the period. The result is that tinnitus has become a very real public health challenge. So far, sound therapy has proved successful up to a point, but this solution is very restrictive and requires a high level of management and a significant investment of time on a daily basis: at least 6 hours per day listening to very unpleasant therapeutic noise for a continuous period of at least 6 months.
Diapason: allowing patients to easily take control of their own therapy and play an active role in it.

tinnitus-therapy-appImmersive Therapy has developed Diapason, a gaming app for mobile devices that is designed to assess and treat tinnitus sufferers.

The app first assesses the level of tinnitus and allows patients to produce their own audiogram using the game to characterize the level and range of the tinnitus. Patients then answer a questionnaire to refine that characterization.
On that basis, the app suggests a daily treatment pathway in the form of arcade-type games that allow the patient to treat their own condition in sessions of a few minutes each day over a period of a few months.

The individual activities on this treatment pathway have been built in conjunction with specialist ENT physicians, who have validated every step in this new digital approach to treatment. The clinical trials were carried out at the Pitié Salpêtrière Teaching Hospital in Paris under the supervision of Dr. Catherine de Waele, an ENT specialist and CNRS Director of Research.

Relief in 2 game-based stages

Available on the smartphone (Android now and iOS in a few months’ time) and online, Diapason supports patients at every stage of the care pathway with a series of activities lasting no more than five minutes.

A diagnostic phase in which the app creates an audiogram, and the patient completes a questionnaire about his/her own perception of their tinnitus (frequencies, time of day, level of discomfort, etc.) so that the app can diagnose the individual nature of the tinnitus suffered and qualify it in terms of level and range)

A serious game therapy during which the patient spends a few minutes playing arcade-type games designed to make it easier to undergo this sound therapy routine.

Although the principle of sound therapy is known to be effective in the treatment of tinnitus, the sounds that patients are obliged to listen to are often boring and sometimes downright unpleasant. Immersive Therapy, therefore, delivers these sounds via a short period of activity designed to improve motivation by providing a mini-game that captures the attention of the patient, during which the sound therapy is provided in proportion to success in the game. For example, if the therapeutic sound is slightly louder when a target is achieved (a line in Tetris, for example), the patient unconsciously associates the sound therapy with a positive thought, which in turn improves treatment compliance and the speed at which the symptoms are relieved. These mechanisms are based on Pavlovian conditioning methods that enable a change of perception in response to a stimulus.

As a result, patients take control of their own therapy and play an active role in it. They can administer the therapy where and when they wish, whether on the subway, in a supermarket line or relaxing at home, especially given that each session takes only five minutes.

Dr. Catherine de Waele, CNRS Director of Research: “Over the last 10 years, sound therapies have demonstrated their value in treating the curse of tinnitus, but they do demand costly management and a very restrictive routine. With Immersive Therapy, a few minutes each day are all that’s needed for patients to immerse themselves in the treatment using an entertaining mobile app that works with them on a day-by-day basis and allows them to monitor the entire process towards achieving a significant reduction in tinnitus over just a few months.”

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the perception of an unpleasant sound that does not originate in an external environment but is generated by a condition of the inner ear. Tinnitus is exceptionally trying to the point of being debilitating for some patients. Traumatic events can trigger an auditory shock within a narrow frequency band (excessively loud music at a concert, a diving accident, a car crash and noise pollution are all potential causes). A recent theory suggests that following such an event, the primary auditory cortex increases the sensitivity of neurons within this frequency band to compensate for the absence of audio signal. This then creates the perception of a ringing, whistling, humming sound that exists for no one else: tinnitus.

Current solutions for treating tinnitus

There is currently no therapeutic strategy for this condition. The solutions most commonly offered consist of enabling patients to live with the condition supported by psychotherapy or drug-based therapies in the form of tranquilizers and antidepressants.
Recent research work shows that sound therapy is also a possibility: on the basis of a precise diagnosis, the patient must listen on a regular basis to tailored sounds for prolonged periods, the result of which is relief from the symptoms of tinnitus. In the short term, this therapy provides patients with such relief for only a few minutes after listening to the therapeutic signals. But over the longer term, the patient will gain complete relief from all tinnitus. The problem with this type of sound therapy is not the final outcome, but rather the difficulty patients experience in listening repeatedly and for long periods to a therapeutic sound so similar to their own tinnitus symptoms. Patients, therefore, need a non-invasive, less restrictive and above all entertaining therapy, and that is precisely what Immersive Therapy is offering.

About Immersive Therapy

Immersive Therapy is an innovative tech startup created at CentraleSupélec in 2017 by Lilian Delaveau, Renaud Séguier, and Catherine Soladié. Their overall goal is to design and produce game-based therapeutic platforms through the use of virtual reality and augmented reality technologies that bring a serious game vision into the world of medical treatment. The first specific goal of Immersive Therapy is to offer chronic tinnitus sufferers a new way of treating themselves, which integrates seamlessly into today’s increasingly connected and digital lives.