A standalone app that reduces the effects of tinnitus could soon be available by prescription on the NHS, according to its co-founder and CEO.
Jörg Land oversees the operations of Sonormed, which created the Tinnitracks app, borne from clinical research into treating the often-debilitating condition. The app is unusual in that it's a standalone app for sustained treatment rather than symptom relief, and is led by software rather than hardware.
Sonormed says that University of Muenster research created a clinically proven therapy for chronic tinnitus, based on targeting the cause of tinnitus within the brain rather than providing temporary relief.
From the customer's perspective, a user goes to their doctor for a tinnitus diagnosis and receives their personal specifications and a small card confirming that the patient has a problem. They then can gain access to the Tinnitracks app, available on iOS and Android.
When they've got the app, users send their own music files to the Sonormed servers, which are then filtered to remove the frequencies causing the patient's tinnitus. Sonormed recommends that patients are consistent with their use for the best results, so this requires treatment every day.
According to Sonormed's website: "This creates an audible notch in the sound spectrum of your music... It slightly alters the sound. Your sense of hearing, however, is able to quickly adapt to this unfamiliar input.
"This systematically changed input can cause the brain to re-shift its imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory nerve signals in the auditory centre, back towards a healthy balance between the two."
The company says this newly filtered music can specifically target and stimulate nerve cells that are outside of the regular tinnitus frequency. This then allows "lateral inhibition to reduce the abnormal hyperactivity in the auditory cortex's nerve cells that are causing tinnitus".
Essentially, by treating the audio of the files Tinnitracks targets the affected area in the brain, and 'trains' it into a less severe kind of tinnitus.
Users can expect a reduction in tinnitus of between 25 and 50 percent, according to the company. "Some people report it's gone but we can't reproduce it," Land explains. "But to see the effect at home, go to your stereo and turn it down by 50 percent – you'll see how much it is."
There are limits to the kind of files that Tinnitracks can treat. Sonormed analyses every file for suitability, and informs the user if it's just not possible. "Classical music doesn't work because there's not enough energy, and for audio books, speech has very limited bandwidth," Land says, adding that it will work in a more optimised way for certain kinds of headphones. At the moment most Bluetooth headphones are not compatible because they do not play lossless audio, although it should work with the new higher-quality Apple Bluetooth headphones.
Sonormed discovered this was a viable product by chance. "Our co-founder is an audio engineer and he got a call from a clinic," Land says. "They said, 'it works in the clinical field, but we need it for everyday work – we don't have a sound engineer that's looking at the technology for every music file, please build it for us'." The company quickly realised that if it could be built in the context of clinical research, it could be built for everybody else too.
Right now, Sonormed is focusing on navigating the German market, which provides healthcare through a public-private insurance model, where it is currently in use. The company recently opened a Boston office and it plans to roll out across the USA once it can figure out the complex regulations set by the FDA, which Land says is a stumbling block.
"I thought European regulations are a pain, but the US is even more special," he says. When a company claims to be offering a medical service it is crucial to pay close attention to the regulations, because a misstep could see a competitor knocking the business off the market. "As soon as you have a medical claim you are by definition a certified medical device, and if you bring it to the maret without being a medical device, you are liable."
After these kinks are worked out, the UK is a very attractive proposition for Sonormed, and the company hopes to target the NHS.
"The NHS has 95 percent market share, there's no point going to the [private] five percent of the market," Land says. "You just have the NHS, so it's easy for us to start a discussion with them. The UK is very relevant: it's large, it's got one health system, and it's very close to us."