Helping tinnitus sufferers is just the start for Neuromod Devices

An Irish start-up has created a completely new approach to the treatment of tinnitus, which uses technology

Ross O’Neill of Neuromod Devices with a Mutebutton

Ross O’Neill of Neuromod Devices with a Mutebutton

 

For some it’s a high-pitched drone, for others a whooshing, hissing or buzzing. The layman’s name for it is “ringing in your ears”. The medical term is tinnitus and it can completely disrupt people’s lives making it impossible for them to work, sleep, socialise or concentrate on simple tasks.

There is no known cure. However, a new product from Irish technology start-up, Neuromod Devices, looks set to revolutionise its treatment.

The product is called Mutebutton and it has been developed by neuroscientist Ross O’Neill who spent six years researching neuromodulation technologies at the Hamilton Institute at NUI Maynooth before spinning out a company in 2010.

Just over four years later Neuromod Devices has jumped through all of the numerous medical, regulatory and logistical hoops required and the product is now available on the Irish market.

“Mutebutton is a completely new approach to the treatment of tinnitus as, unlike other technologies that only provide relief when using the device, Mutebutton can drive a real improvement in the patient’s condition,” O’Neill says.

Symptoms

It can be temporary or chronic and induced by noise, an underlying illness or in a large number of cases, by age-related hearing loss.

Tinnitus can happen at any age but those over 50 are twice as likely to suffer from it as the hair cells in the inner ear that convert sound waves into neural impulses become damaged over time.

The Irish Tinnitus Association says about 45,000 people here have the condition.

The UK association says 10 per cent of the adult population there is affected while the US association puts the figure at 15 per cent with some 20 million Americans experiencing a debilitating form of the condition.

And tinnitus is not just about the noise. Depression, anxiety, and sleep deprivation are common secondary symptoms.

“I’ve spent nearly a decade working on this treatment and the aim was to develop a solution that was patient friendly and minimally invasive. We wanted to avoid anything that required implantation and therefore surgery,” O’Neill says.

“Twelve million people present to their doctor with clinically significant tinnitus each year in Europe and the US alone and with increasing levels of noise exposure from our environment and an aging population, tinnitus is a global condition that is expected to escalate dramatically in the coming years.”

One way to manage tinnitus is by drawing the brain’s attention away from the noise. However, many of the existing masking devices used to do so are unisensory and not particularly effective.

Mutebutton is a multi-sensory solution that marries relaxing sounds with the gentle stimulation of specific nerves in the tongue.

This combination makes use of a natural phenomenon that occurs within the brain (multi-sensory integration) to help it to better distinguish between genuine and false sounds.

Mutebutton comprises a set of headphones, a small tongue pad and a compact control unit. O’Neill says it should be used for 30 minutes a day for a minimum of 10 weeks to get results.

In clinical studies carried out by NUI Maynooth in conjunction with The Hermitage Clinic in Dublin the device has been shown to reduce tinnitus loudness by 42 per cent.

O’Neill collaborated with a number of experts on the development of Mutebutton including senior ENT surgeon Brendan Conlon of St James’s and Tallaght Hospitals, clinical audiologist Caroline Hamilton, a specialist in tinnitus, and design engineer Stephen Hughes who was a colleague at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when O’Neill worked there as a researcher.

“Making prototypes is easy,” O’Neill says. “The big challenge is scaling up for manufacturing volumes which is where Stephen’s experience came into play. We’re delighted that the device is being made in Ireland by Molex in Shannon and M&M Qualtech in Galway. ”

Target markets

“In all markets we are taking a B2C and a B2B approach,” O’Neill says. “As the device is completely innovative we not only have to inform the public but also the medical community and potential distribution partners about it.”

The company is currently focused on launching Mutebutton, but Neuromod is not a one-trick pony.

Tinnitus is just one of the chronic conditions the innovative neurostimulation technologies can help.

“What we’ve developed is a stable platform technology for the rapid development and evaluation of other innovative neuromodulatory interventions,” O’Neill says. “This core technology is intended to form the basis for a pipeline of new products aimed at globally unmet clinical needs and high-value market opportunities.”

However, he won’t be drawn on the specifics beyond saying that the technology also works in other situations where neuro circuits are “behaving badly” such as tremors, spasms and illusory perceptions.

The development of Mutebutton has been financially supported by Science Foundation Ireland, the Higher Education Authority and Enterprise Ireland which contributed €400,000 under its high potential start-up fund. The company has also raised €2.3 million in angel and seed capital to date and is now revenue generating.

The intellectual property (IP) for Mutebutton has been licensed by Neuromod from NUI Maynooth and the company is now based at Nova UCD. “We wanted to base ourselves in Nova as they have a lot of IP protection experience and because there are many young companies based there who are facing the same challenges as we are. We find people are very willing to help and to give you the benefit of their experience informally over a cup of coffee,” O’Neill says.

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