Scientists create first smartphone app that can 'hear' ear infections in children

18 May, 2019, 04:40 | Author: Sherman Richardson
  • A smartphone app plays a sound for 1.2 seconds the app then uses the phone's mic to listen in if fluids or pus have accumulated behind the eardrum in the middle ear the returned echo will indicate an infection

So the authors behind this study, published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, wanted to create an easier-to-use, affordable test that could rival that accuracy. The app produces a series of soft chirps, which travel through a child's ear through the small paper cone.

"Designing an accurate screening tool on something as ubiquitous as a smartphone can be game-changing for parents as well as health care providers in resource-limited regions", said Shyam Gollakota, a co-author on the study and an associate professor of computer science and engineering at UW, in an announcement.

"A key advantage of our technology is that it does not require any additional hardware other than a piece of paper and a software app running on the smartphone", Gollakota added. It involved about 50 children that their ears checked with the app. The eardrum, formally known as the tympanic membrane, is the barrier between the outer and middle ear.

Ear infections are common in children, and even if there's no infection, fluid in the middle ear can be painful and sometimes muffle hearing enough to harm speech development.

"Using machine learning on these sounds, we can detect the presence of liquid", says first author Justin Chan. "Depending on how much liquid is in it, you get different sounds". The microphone detects sound waves bouncing off the eardrum. That funnel acts as a conduit as the phone sends soundwaves into the child's ear canal - soundwaves that are measured after they bounce back off the eardrum. The 150-millisecond audio clip resembles a bird chirping and was found to be effective in the researcher's work.

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One researcher offered a useful analogy - and one that frustrated parents might relate to. About half were scheduled to undergo surgery to place tubes in their ears, a common treatment for chronic fluid buildup.

What if you could diagnose your child's ear infection in the comfort of your own home? That's the best way to tell if there is fluid behind the eardrum. "So these surgeries created the ideal setting for this study". The other half were scheduled to have surgery unrelated to ears, such as a tonsillectomy. It has vague symptoms, from tug of the ears to fever, or there could be no observable symptoms at all. The team then tested the algorithm on 15 ears, analyzing children aged between 9 and 18 months. This time, the app correctly identified all 5 children who had ear fluid, while correctly guessing nine of the 10 children who didn't have fluid.

There are already very accurate tests (around 80 to 90 per cent) that can diagnose ear fluid by looking for subtle changes in the eardrum, such as tympanometry, but these need to be done at a doctor's office and require specialised medical equipment.

The team wanted to give parents a quick and reliable way of screening for the condition at home, to help them decide whether or not to take their child to the doctor.

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