Highlighting Illinois researchers in clinical and translational neuroscience with unique approaches to improving neurological function and brain health
The vibrant, diverse neuroscience community at Illinois is working to find solutions to some of today’s most pressing societal health challenges in fields including aging; learning, memory and plasticity; nutrition and cognition; neuroengineering; neuro-and socio-genomics; bioinformatics; and more. More than 300 faculty and staff on the Urbana-Champaign campus identify as researchers in the neuroscience space—regardless of their home department affiliation. These researchers are using leading-edge imaging tools, pioneering studies that progress from the lab to clinical applications with the goal of improving the health and lives of people everywhere.
Fatima Husain, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Speech & Hearing Science & Beckman Institute
Throughout her career, Prof. Fatima Husain has focused on auditory, speech, and language processing in the brain using neuroimaging (fMRI) and computational modeling techniques. She is specifically interested in using imaging to identify reliable biomarkers for tinnitus that will lead to better diagnosis and, ultimately, more effective treatments. Learn more about Prof. Husain's work in this recent Beckman feature.
Q: Explain your research in neuroscience; what are you investigating?
At the most basic level, I study sound processing in the brain. I have always been fascinated by languages and over the course of my career have studied various aspects of language and speech processing. My current focus is on hearing disorders, particularly tinnitus, and how they affect brain function and anatomy. Tinnitus is colloquially known as ‘ringing in the ears’. It is the perception of sound in the absence of an external source – i.e., it is self-generated activity in the brain that is perceived as a sound. Some people term it as a phantom sound or an illusory sound, but it is real.
Tinnitus is a subjective condition; the only way I know if someone has tinnitus is because they tell me. There is no ‘cure’ for tinnitus although there are therapies to manage its bothersome symptoms such as concentration problems, challenges with communication, sleep problems and increasingly comorbid anxiety or depression. Like other neuropsychiatric disorders, this subjective component makes it harder to understand tinnitus and even harder to treat. Using brain imaging, we are working to identify a set of robust and reliable biomarkers that have diagnostic and prognostic value. We have made tremendous progress on this front. We have identified specific brain regions and their connectivity patterns that are most useful in dissociating patients from controls and different subgroups within the larger heterogeneous tinnitus population.
For the past 10 years, the major focus of my lab’s research has been on determining objective brain imaging biomarkers of tinnitus. This singular focus is partly because of our funding support and partly because our studies have resulted in new insights but also more questions. We are one of a handful of labs around the world with such a strong focus on tinnitus and brain imaging.
Q: How are you currently conducting your research?
We do exclusively human subject research, using behavior, survey methods and all types of brain imaging. Behavior typically involves a comprehensive audiological assessment, some tasks, and several questionnaires. We have recently started doing online surveys. This was driven by a lack of knowledge about how tinnitus affects different communities, how treatment is accessed, and the role played by healthcare providers or how patients learn to self-manage this chronic condition.
Using brain imaging, we link sound (incoming or internally generated) to behavior. We use any and all types of MRI tools, from resting state to task-based fMRI, from diffusion tensor imaging to arterial spin labeling. We are collaborating with other labs that use PET or EEG. We are testing the efficacy of different interventions and linking it to neural correlates, thus developing greater insight into which treatment works for which subgroup and the mechanisms behind it.
Q: How does being part of the broader Illinois research community support and enhance your work?
The collaboration with the people here and the access to resources have greatly influenced the type of research I am able to do and have accelerated my pace of discovery. Of the many such influences, I will highlight two that have moved my research into two unanticipated directions, one more clinical and the other more mathematical.
I work in the Speech and Hearing Science department, which allows me to teach and collaborate with clinically-trained faculty and Doctor of Audiology students. This has made the translational component of my research more urgent. The students have led most of the survey studies I mentioned above. They will go on to treat tinnitus patients, so it has become even more crucial that they leave their degree program with the latest evidence-based information about managing tinnitus.
My most fruitful collaboration has been with Dr. Yuliy Baryshnikov (Mathematics and ECE). We have used his topological data research to gain deeper insights into neural mechanisms of tinnitus. More specifically, we use cyclicity analysis to determine cyclical but aperiodic activity in the brain and, using machine learning, leverage this to differentiate patients from controls, based entirely on their resting state fMRI data. We have achieved about 60% accuracy, which is the state of the art, not only for tinnitus but also in diagnosing other neuropsychiatric conditions. In doing so, we also learned about which specific connections between which brain regions are the most important is differentiating tinnitus patients from controls. We are looking to expand this work beyond tinnitus by studying different brain states in neuro-typical controls.
Q: In what ways do you envision your work improving society or reaching people?
I think all of my work, in some ways, is to know more about people (brains) and help them in the short-term by increasing knowledge about bothersome conditions and in the long-term by easing their suffering. As mentioned earlier, we are testing several different interventions in our lab and via collaborations and using brain imaging to determine the neural correlates of the efficacy of such interventions. Our long-term goal is to develop a novel intervention based on our brain imaging work.
I want to disseminate the insights gained by our work in the short-term to the healthcare providers and patients. There is a great need for good information and the more I have worked with tinnitus patients, the more I have become aware of this. I write for popular science journals that are accessible to lay persons, and I write for magazines that are published by tinnitus or hearing associations. I hold “information sessions” about tinnitus and hearing loss at our local library. I answer the phone and reply to emails when patients read our work and contact us.
Q: What led to your interest in this area of study?
I have family members who have hearing loss and tinnitus. But I was studying to be a computational and auditory neuroscientist before I started thinking about these conditions. So it was an easy switch to make mentally. However, it took longer before I could steer the ship of my research towards the goals of studying tinnitus and other hearing disorders.
Tinnitus is not just a hearing disorder. Studying it has led me to deepen my understanding of the attention network, the emotion-processing system, the salience network, resting or intrinsic neural networks and even the visual system. I would have not done this if I had stuck to my original plan of studying “normal” hearing and speech perception. For all the frustrations about studying this enigmatic disorder and the chaos of its research, it has been the most rewarding experience.