NIH awards NAU audiologist $455,982 to study genetic link to tinnitus – The NAU Review

April 10, 2019

Tinnitus, more commonly known as ringing in the ears, is a serious audiological and neurological condition that affects nearly 50 million Americans. Exposure to noise and music are major environmental risk factors for tinnitus. There is no known cure, and no FDA-approved drugs have been developed specifically to treat it. The fact is, tinnitus is very common but poorly understood. A better understanding of its causes could potentially improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

This is why a team of researchers, led by Ishan Bhat, The NAU Assistant Professor of Communication Science and Disorders recently launched a three-year study to determine whether genes influence the perception of tinnitus. Funded by a $455,982 grant from the National Institutes of Health, the long-term goal of the project is to build a genetic risk profile that can be used by healthcare providers and educators to identify people genetically at risk. risk of chronic tinnitus and help prevent the disease.

Bhatt collaborators on the project are co-investigator Jason Wilder, professor of human genetics and genomics, who will oversee the genetic analyses; co-investigator Jin Wang, Associate Professor of Statistics, who will provide statistical expertise; and Raquel Dias, principal investigator at the Scripps Research Institute, who will consult on bioinformatics.

“We don’t have a lot of information about how genes influence this disease, so we’re investigating the genetic association with tinnitus,” Bhatt said.

This could influence three areas of future treatment:

  • develop tinnitus prevention plans that take into account a person’s genetic predisposition to the condition
  • shifting to a precision healthcare approach that takes into account a person’s genetics, environmental factors, and other health-related risks rather than adopting a single-treatment approach
  • contribute to treatments via gene-editing technology such as CRISPR

Choosing a Healthy NAU Study Group

To isolate any genetic link to other causes of the condition, the team will study healthy young adults with tinnitus. Bhatt’s team is distributing screening questionnaires throughout the university to find 300 healthy subjects among the student population at NAU’s Flagstaff campus. Study participants will be invited to Bhatt’s Hearing Research Lab, where the team will assess hearing health measures and collect saliva samples for DNA analysis.

Bhatt hypothesizes that acute tinnitus is mainly caused by environmental factors, while chronic tinnitus (such as bothersome tinnitus for less than a year) is mainly influenced by genetic factors.

“The beauty of the healthy young adult population is that they don’t show age-related confounders and tend to show almost no tinnitus-related distress,” Bhatt said. “By studying healthy young adults who are not exposed to the extremely traumatic environments that other adults – such as factory workers, military personnel and musicians – may have experienced, the project hopes to control the harmful effects environmental and age-related confounding factors on tinnitus.

To study this is just the beginning

The study is already underway and Bhatt expects the sample size to grow. The screening questionnaire is circulating, and the team will collect and analyze data until December 2021. A clinical doctoral student will soon join the study to collect audiological data and oversee logistics. Bhatt is certain that this study is just the beginning.

“We hope to collect enough pilot data to eventually be able to conduct large-scale genetic analysis and build a clinically useful genetic risk profile for tinnitus,” he said.

Students interested in participating in the study can contact Bhatt at [email protected]

Kerry Bennett and Amy K. Phillips | Office of the Vice President for Research

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