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Professor earns award for tinnitus research

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Professor earns award for tinnitus research

Fatima Husain (left) and Holly Tracy (right), MRI technologist, discuss brain-imaging tools in the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology on Thursday.

Fatima Husain (left) and Holly Tracy (right), MRI technologist, discuss brain-imaging tools in the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology on Thursday.

Alex Sardjev

Fatima Husain (left) and Holly Tracy (right), MRI technologist, discuss brain-imaging tools in the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology on Thursday.

Alex Sardjev

Alex Sardjev

Fatima Husain (left) and Holly Tracy (right), MRI technologist, discuss brain-imaging tools in the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology on Thursday.

By Alex Sardjev, Staff Writer

Tinnitus is one of the most common health conditions in the United States, affecting an estimated 45 million Americans, according to the American Tinnitus Association. Despite its prevalence, scientific knowledge about the condition remains limited.

In an effort to better understand tinnitus, Fatima Husain, associate professor in the speech and hearing science department at the University, and her lab are conducting in-depth research and analysis, which has earned Husain an appointment to the Center for Advanced Study for spring 2020.  

Tinnitus generally refers to a phantom ringing in one’s ears, though its manifestations and severity can vary greatly from person to person.

“If you start experiencing tinnitus today, we don’t know if yours will go away in three days or three decades,” Husain said.

There is currently no cure, and while some therapies do exist, they are often inconvenient or not universally effective, she said.

Husain also said there is a strong correlation between tinnitus and hearing loss, but it has not been determined if one causes the other.

“In college, I would listen to a lot of really loud music through headphones,” said Charles “Stretch” Ledford, associate professor in Media and former subject of a 2014 study on tinnitus. “The other possible cause, which is more likely, is not using proper gear while being around skeet shooters as a scoutmaster.”

Ledford said he tends to notice his tinnitus when he’s in a loud, crowded environment, like a bar or a restaurant.

The primary problem surrounding existing data on tinnitus is that much of it is contradictory. One of Husain’s goals is to use research to develop a theory that can explain this data.

Her research involves using neuroimaging to comprehend the mechanisms of tinnitus.

“The big revolution of brain imaging is that we can non-invasively look inside the brain,” she said.

Husain’s lab uses a process called Resting State Functional Connectivity to collect and analyze data. This involves having a patient lie still for a given period of time while they are undergoing MRI scans. The scans are then compared across different studies and temporal windows to observe how the brain adapts to tinnitus.

“It is the simplest experiment ever,” she said. “All of the hard work and innovation is in the analysis.”

Husain said nearly all of her research is done at the Beckman Institute, which is home to two full-body MRI scanners as well as a full-time research staff.

Her lab also works with a military base in San Antonio, where studies are conducted on military personnel. Tinnitus is the number-one disability among soldiers, likely because of the extremely loud nature of their environment, she said.

Musicians are another group commonly affected by tinnitus. Several well-known singer-songwriters have been open about their struggles with the condition, including Neil Young and Brian Wilson.

As an associate of the CAS, Husain will take a break from her teaching duties for one semester so she can wholeheartedly focus on her studies.

The CAS is an organization that hosts public events, and it offers significant funding opportunities to support professors in their research, said Masumi Iriye, the CAS deputy director.

This is not the first time Husain has received an award from the CAS. In 2011, they granted her a fellowship, which allowed her to lay the groundwork for her research methods using RSFC.

Husain said her findings will allow her to evaluate current therapies as well as develop more targeted treatment methods.

Husain began her studies in computer science, and she completed her doctoral degree in cognitive and neural systems after becoming interested in language processing. When she first learned about tinnitus, she was intrigued because one of her family members suffered from it.

Brian Johnson, professor of Journalism, said he was able to acclimate to his tinnitus after experiencing it for most of his life. He also participated in the study on tinnitus.

“It was clear to me from the questions they were asking [before the study] that for some people, this was a devastating change to their lives,” Johnson said. “If an effective therapy was developed that didn’t take much time and was easy to do, I might explore it.”

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