Tinnitus-related distress after multimodal treatment can be characterized using a key subset of baseline variables

PLoS One. 2020 Jan 30;15(1):e0228037. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0228037. eCollection 2020.


Background: Chronic tinnitus is a complex condition that can be associated with considerable distress. Whilst cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT) approaches have been shown to be effective, not all patients benefit from psychological or psychologically anchored multimodal therapies. Determinants of tinnitus-related distress thus provide valuable information about tinnitus characterization and therapy planning.

Objective: The study aimed to develop machine learning models that use variables (or "features") obtained before treatment to characterize patients' tinnitus-related distress status after treatment. Whilst initially all available variables were considered for model training, the final model was required to achieve highest predictive performance using only a small number of features.

Methods: 1,416 tinnitus patients (decompensated tinnitus: 32%) who completed a 7-day multimodal treatment encompassing tinnitus-specific components, CBT, physiotherapy and informational counseling were included in the analysis. At baseline, patients were assessed using 205 features from 10 questionnaires comprising sociodemographic and clinical information. A data-driven workflow was developed consisting of (a) an initial exploratory correlation analysis, (b) supervised machine learning to predict tinnitus-related distress after treatment (T1) using baseline data only (T0), and (c) post-hoc analysis of the best model to facilitate model inspection and understanding. Classification methods were embedded in a feature elimination wrapper that iteratively learned on features found to be important for the model in the preceding iteration, in order to keep the performance stable while successively reducing the model complexity. 10-fold cross-validation with area under the curve (AUC) as performance measure was implemented for model generalization error estimation.

Results: The best machine learning classifier (gradient boosted trees) can predict tinnitus-related distress in T1 with AUC = 0.890 using 26 features. Subjectively perceived tinnitus-related impairment, depressivity, sleep problems, physical health-related impairments in quality of life, time spent to complete questionnaires and educational level exhibited a high attribution towards model prediction.

Conclusions: Machine learning can reliably identify baseline features recorded prior to treatment commencement that characterize tinnitus-related distress after treatment. The identification of key features can contribute to an improved understanding of multifactorial contributors to tinnitus-related distress and thereon based multimodal treatment strategies.

MeSH terms

  • Area Under Curve
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology*
  • Tinnitus / psychology*
  • Tinnitus / therapy*

Grant support

The author(s) received no specific funding for this work.