NOTE - EMBARGOED until 00:01 on Thurs May 21

THEY are an everyday device often accused of doing more harm than good.

But doctors in Southampton have developed a special set of headphones that will be able to detect life-threatening head injuries and infections without the need for painful procedures or surgery.

The pioneering device is currently being tested on healthy volunteers at Southampton General Hospital in a study led by Dr Robert Marchbanks, consultant clinical scientist, and Dr Tony Birch, a clinical measurement physicist.

It can pick up on changes to ‘intercranial pressure’ (ICP) in the brain that can be caused by swelling from injuries or infections that prevent blood flow and starve the brain of oxygen.

A patient wears the headphones with an ear plug linked up to a computer, enabling doctors to measure the fluid pressure in the skill via a channel that links the inner ear to the brain.

Any changes of pressure are then picked up via corresponding changes to pressure in the ear – signalling the need for medical help.

Currently, ICP can only be measured in two ways - drilling a hole through the skull and planting a probe in the brain, or removing fluid from the spinal cord using a needle.

Dr Marchbanks said: “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.

“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 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.”

The researchers believe the device could transform the diagnosis and treatment of conditions like meningitis and head trauma and could also improve the monitoring of patients in comas.

The technology has already been adopted by NASA to analyse brain pressure levels in astronauts to tackle space-related sicknesses.

Now the research team is looking for more volunteers to take part in the study with a view to rolling out the headphones across the NHS in the 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.”

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