Vertigo, dizziness, a sense of ear fullness and ringing in the ears are all symptoms for a variety of illnesses, like a migraine. According to Dr. Wafaa Kaf, professor of audiology in the communication sciences and disorders department at Missouri State University, these symptoms may not immediately raise a red flag to a patient with Meniere’s disease, and that’s one of the major challenges of this disease.

“There are two challenges with this disease,” said Kaf. “We can’t diagnose it as early as we want because current diagnosis is only based on clinical reports from the patient without the use of objective measures to confirm clinical diagnosis, and thus appropriate treatment isn’t offered soon enough. In addition, there is no known definite cause for it.”

According to Kaf, Meniere’s disease is a common disease of the inner ear affecting adults in their fourth decade of life. The disease is believed to be due to an abnormal increase in the amount of the inner ear fluid. If left untreated, this progressive disease may lead to deafness.

Improving the diagnosis process

The current technique for objective diagnosis of Meniere disease is Electrocochleography, but Kaf knows that it lacks sensitivity to accurately detect Meniere’s disease in its early stage. She wants to improve the diagnosis process to understand the origin of the disease and its long-term effects.

Currently, to test patients, an electrode is placed behind the ear and another in the ear canal. Clicking sounds will be presented to the patient’s ear via earphone and the system will record responses from the inner ear and the hearing nerve, which will be analyzed by an audiologist. The diagnosis is based on whether there is an abnormally large response from the inner ear compared to the hearing nerve response.

“My research is to modify the current technique to allow it to detect the disease earlier by presenting the click sounds at faster rates of up to 500 clicks per second,” said Kaf.

She explained that this increased speed is a stressor to the inner ear and the hearing nerve similar to a doctor putting a patient with heart condition on a treadmill while undergoing an echocardiogram (EKG). The stress during an EKG allows physicians to detect early dysfunction of the heart. In Kaf’s research, the modification to the current measure has the potential to detect Meniere’s disease and distinguish it from other inner ear or nerve lesions.