A lot has been happening lately in the world of tinnitus research. Read on to learn more about tinnitus itself, what tinnitus research has found recently, and the most up-to-date treatment options.
What are the facts?
Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual sound is there. It often presents itself as a ringing in the ears, but it can also be sounds like buzzing, hissing, whistling, or others.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of Americans (over 45 million people!) experience some form of tinnitus. About 20 million people have chronic (ongoing) tinnitus, and 2 million have extreme or debilitating cases. In 2011, tinnitus was the most prevalent service-connected disability for veterans, far outstripping PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Tinnitus can be caused by something as simple as an earwax blockage, but it can also be the result of health conditions like noise-induced hearing loss, stress, ear infections, hormonal changes, or the starting or stopping of some medications. It can often be the first warning sign of age-related hearing loss.
There is no cure for tinnitus, but its symptoms can be managed. The most oft-quoted prevention measure is simply to avoid loud sounds or at least protect against them with earplugs or earmuffs.
What’s the latest research?
Mapping a new network
A recent global research effort headed by people from the University at Buffalo in New York, Southeast University in Nanjing, China, and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, strongly suggests that the network in the brain responsible for tinnitus symptoms is much more complex than we thought.
So far, their research has showed that certain parts of the brain, like those responsible for emotion, attention, memory, and the activation of motion (like reaching for the remote control) are all connected to this network. It was the section related to motion activation that most surprised them because they can’t figure out how it’s connected to the phantom sounds. They hope that studying that part in more detail will reveal further insights and help guide them to a cure.
They plan to conduct tests to isolate each part of this network and see how it really works. By shutting down one section of the network at a time, they hope to use process of elimination to see if deactivating any one of them relieves tinnitus.
Looking inside the brain
Meanwhile, researchers out of the University of Iowa have had the unique opportunity to “look inside” the brain of a 50-year-old tinnitus patient. This Iowa man has had tinnitus for years, most likely from recreational gun use. But he also has epilepsy, and that required him to have brain surgery. He gave researchers permission to implant electrodes into certain parts of his brain during the surgery so that they could study his tinnitus further.
They “turned off” (or at least lowered the volume level of) the tinnitus phantom sound by playing a louder sound. They were then able to compare his brain activity while the tinnitus was active to that while the tinnitus was quieted. This helped pinpoint exactly which brain waves were associated with tinnitus, which has never been done before.
Any new ways to treat it?
Tinnitus doesn’t have a cure yet, but there are several management solutions that help to lessen its effect and make its symptoms more tolerable. These include hearing aids with tinnitus therapy features, counseling, wearable sound generators fitted in the ear that emit soft sounds to mask the symptoms, external sound generators, and cochlear implants. But new treatment options have started to spring up.
New technologies and treatments
A new smartphone app called Whist by Sensimetrics Corporation is designed to function like those wearable sound generators mentioned above. There are several apps out there which serve this purpose, but there’s one important difference with Whist: the user can actually adjust the pitch, tone, and other variables to match those of his or her individual symptoms. As everyone with tinnitus experiences a different phantom sound, this personalization will make the app as effective as possible for each user.
Similarly, acoustic neural stimulation is a relatively new technique for treating severe tinnitus. The music played through headphones in this treatment also contains a broadband acoustic signal, which stimulates change in the brain’s neural circuits. This eventually desensitizes the user to their tinnitus.
Remolding the brain
Daniel Polley, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, specializes in neural plasticity (the ability of brain activity to be remolded). He thinks that the abnormal brain waves found in the Iowa study above can be fixed by using sound to retrain the brain.
He has two approaches to doing just that, and he’s currently testing them. The first is a game in which participants have to use audio feedback to identify hidden objects on a screen. Tones close to the frequency of the participant’s tinnitus symptoms are “the villains” and don’t help win the game. The hope is that participants’ brains will be trained to identify and discriminate between the pitch of their tinnitus symptoms and pitches close to it.
The second approach involves music therapy. The music used is chosen by the participants, but it has the tone of their tinnitus symptoms filtered out. Again, the goal is to get the participant to recognize and use the tones close to the frequency of their tinnitus symptoms. Learning to hear and use these tones will help them “fill in the gaps” and eventually overtake the tinnitus tone. This is the essence of neural plasticity.
That’s the essence of what’s new in the world of tinnitus research. For more information on tinnitus treatment options, check out our hearing aids with tinnitus therapy. You can also use our provider locator tool to find a hearing healthcare professional nearby who can help.