Artificial intelligence helps doctors treat ear problems

Start-up and scientists from Maastricht and Antwerp help map out the inner ear

A new method of mapping the inner ear by means of artificial intelligence (AI) has been developed by the Belgian start-up Radiomics, in close cooperation with doctors and scientists from Maastricht UMC+, Maastricht University, the Antwerp University Hospital (UZA) and the University of Antwerp.

Radiomics researcher Akshayaa Vaidyanathan explains: 'In order to examine the inner ear with MRI scans, you have to be able to recognise it very precisely on a scan. That's quite a challenge, because it's a tiny structure. To this day, doctors indicate manually where the inner ear is located on a scan. Not only is this very time-consuming, but this can also lead to vast differences.' To solve this problem, a new method based on artificial intelligence was developed: an application that can automatically recognise the inner ear on MRI scans. It only takes a few seconds, and it can be done over and over again with a high degree of reproducibility. Dr Vincent Van Rompaey, ENT specialist at UZA: 'In the future, this application will help doctors diagnose and treat inner ear conditions, and it can even help train junior physicians.'

Labyrinth 

The innermost part of the human ear contains a spiral cavity that allows us to hear, called the cochlea, and an organ that controls our sense of balance, called the vestibular system. Together they form the inner ear (also called the labyrinth), located in the petrous bone, which is the hardest bone in the human body. Both hearing and balance are achieved through a complex interplay of pressure waves in the fluid in the inner ear. Vibrating air movements (sounds) are amplified to create a pressure wave in the cochlea, which activates the hair cells and the auditory nerve.

inner ear

Head movements set the fluid in the vestibular system in motion, activating a different type of hair cells. This allows the vestibular nerve to control the eyes at lightning speed to compensate for the movement, so our vision is not blurred as we move around.

If the complex interplay of pressure waves is not balanced, it can cause hearing loss, tinnitus, or dizziness.

Teaspoon

To improve our understanding of certain diseases of the inner ear, we need to be able to examine the inner ear properly. But it is very small and therefore difficult to examine. ENT specialist and balance expert Dr Raymond van de Berg at Maastricht UMC+ illustrates: 'One teaspoon (5 millilitres) can contain 25 times the amount of fluid in the inner ear. This new technique based on artificial intelligence can help us map the inner ear with MRI scans much better and faster.'