The American Academy of Audiology1 has announced what they call ground-breaking news in the search for treatments for tinnitus. The AAO reported that scientists at the University of Michigan discovered that “precisely-timed sound stimulation coupled with weak electrical pulses delivered to the neck or cheeks” could bring relief from tinnitus.
The study was developed on the clinical basis that tinnitus is caused by cells at the nucleus of the cochlear (part of the inner ear). When the cells become hyperactive they send sounds to the ear that are perceived as tinnitus. When the scientists delivered precisely-timed sounds and electrical pulses to those cells, the hyperactivity was reduced. The study was first conducted with guinea pigs and then repeated in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in 20 humans. A more comprehensive study is now underway funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Any progress, especially the ground-breaking type, in the treatment of tinnitus is welcome news to the nearly 50 million Americans2 who suffer with it. For nearly 20 million people it is a chronic condition with little relief and two million people are debilitated by extreme cases of it. The symptoms of tinnitus are different for each individual, but generally it includes ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing and clicking in the ears.
Scientists do not know a lot about tinnitus and that is why these studies are so important. They theorize that it may be caused by environmental factors, heredity and age. Much of the research that has been done has contradictory results. For example, some studies2 show that people who suffer from both tinnitus and depression may find relief tinnitus from the drugs that treat the depression (SSRI’s). However, there are also studies showing that SSRI’s may actually cause tinnitus. As a result, research must continue to increase scientific understanding of the role these drugs play.
Not only does tinnitus cause noise in the ears, it causes the person with the condition to expend more effort to listen. An investigation3 published by the AAO conducted a small sample, control group study of 13 individuals with tinnitus and a similarly sized group of people without the condition. They participated in three tests of listening effort that produced three different listening environments:
- Quiet with one talker
- Quiet with multiple talkers
- Background noise
The study showed that regardless of the type of listening environment, people with tinnitus had to expend more effort to listen.
These and other findings illustrate the wide gaps in scientific knowledge about tinnitus and the need for more ground-breaking progress. The 50 million Americans who suffer with the condition are waiting for treatments that will bring some silence to their ears.