Doctors study pioneering 'headphone' device to detect brain injuries

Doctors study pioneering 'headphone' device to detect brain injuries

Doctors in Southampton have developed a pioneering brain pressure test that can detect life-threatening head injuries and infections – without the need for surgery or painful spinal procedures.

Dr Robert Marchbanks, a consultant clinical scientist, and Dr Tony Birch, a clinical measurement physicist, are currently using the device, known as the cerebral and cochlear fluid pressure (CCFP) analyser, to study healthy volunteers at Southampton General Hospital.

The technique, which involves a patient wearing headphones with an ear plug linked to a computer, enables doctors to measure fluid pressure in the skull – known as intracranial pressure (ICP) – via a channel which links the inner ear with the brain.

As fluids in the ear and brain are connected, a change in pressure in the brain is reflected by a corresponding change in the ear – which can signal the need for intervention.

Changes to ICP occur when the brain swells as a result of an injury or infection and prevents blood flow, depriving the brain of the oxygen it needs to function.

Currently, it can only be measured by drilling a hole through the skull to implant a pressure probe into the brain in theatre or a lumbar puncture, where a sample of fluid that surrounds the spinal cord is removed using a needle under local anaesthetic.

The development of the CCFP could transform the diagnosis and treatment of conditions such as meningitis and head trauma injuries, as well as the monitoring and management of patients who are in comas.

Separately, it has already been adopted by NASA to analyse brain pressure levels in astronauts to help tackle space-related visual problems and sickness, while doctors believe it could also be used to distinguish between head injuries and post traumatic stress disorder in soldiers returning from combat zones.

“We know that high pressure inside the skull resulting from injuries and infections can be fatal, so it is essential it is detected as early as possible to avoid exacerbating symptoms and ensure treatment can begin promptly,” explained Dr Marchbanks.

“Current methods for testing ICP require procedures to be carried out under sedation or anaesthetic, which means they are limited to the most severe cases and those with less obvious initial symptoms often go undetected until their symptoms have worsened.

“However, as our CCFP device does not require a patient to do anything other than wear a set of headphones with an ear plug, it has the potential to provide rapid, accurate and safe assessments to patients in much larger numbers than is currently possible.”

Although the researchers are already working closely with NASA and developing relations with the UK military, they are currently focusing on completing an NHS study of the equipment at Southampton General Hospital with a view to a wider rollout across the health service in the near future.

Dr Birch, head of neurological physics at the University of Southampton, said: “We are extremely excited about the positive impact this device could have on the NHS, the military and space exploration, but to ensure we continue moving forward it is imperative we get enough people signed up to test the equipment in Southampton.

“We are looking for healthy volunteers aged between 20 and 80 years to come forward and spare two hours of their time to enable us to identify a normal range of pressures before we can use the headset with patients on a wider scale.”

He added: “We are hoping ICP measurement will become as quick and simple as taking blood pressure, so I hope we can encourage people to come and be part of what we hope will go on to be a significant medical breakthrough.”

For more information on the study – funded by Innovate UK – or to register, contact the research team on 023 8120 3370 or 023 8120 3713, email or visit

Posted on Thursday 21 May 2015