For many people, tinnitus is a disturbing ringing sound, while for others it’s a buzzing, hissing, chirping or even roaring in the ears.1 Not surprisingly, many tinnitus sufferers also find it hard to focus and experience fatigue and anxiety as well.
Psychological interventions may lessen the distress of tinnitus, but unfortunately, there’s no drug or surgery that cures the condition.
Recently, researchers made real headway in finding a solution in an unusual device that combines sound with a zap to the tongue.
A 2016 survey found that one in ten adults living in the U.S. suffers from tinnitus.2 And in nearly a quarter of those individuals, symptoms last for more than 15 years. What’s more, the prevalence of chronic tinnitus increases with age.3
According to the Mayo Clinic, tinnitus is most commonly caused by age, exposure to loud noise, or changes to the ear bone.
As for treatment, Harvard Medical School researchers point to behavioral strategies and sound-generating devices – or a combination of the two – as the most common approaches.4
But as new research shows, the brain appears to be intimately involved in the development of tinnitus and may hold the key to its cure.
How Can Your Brain Help Heal Tinnitus?
Research shows that tinnitus sufferers have brain cells that fire abnormally. Scientists developed a unique device, called a bimodal neuromodulation device, to target these cells. It combines sound and, while this may seem odd, electrical stimulation of the tongue.
Study co-author Hubert Lim, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and otolaryngology at the University of Minnesota, says this new treatment aims to activate brain circuits in response to many different sounds to drown out phantom noise. It essentially pairs zaps to the tongue with sounds to rewire brain circuits associated with tinnitus.
In the largest clinical trial of its kind, researchers tested the device on 326 tinnitus sufferers. About 86 percent of the participants reported an improvement in their tinnitus symptoms when evaluated after 12 weeks of treatment.
Equally promising, many reported sustained benefits up to 12 months post-treatment.
“The idea is that eventually your brain gets sensitive to many different things,” Prof. Lim explains. “You can think of it as two ways to treat tinnitus. One is you can try to find [the tinnitus cells] and shut them down. Our approach is to make everything in the auditory system much more hyperactive to everything but the tinnitus.”
Will this device cure tinnitus? No, but it could be a start, researchers say.
“At this stage, we can say that bimodal stimulation is changing things in the brain,” Prof. Lim says. “The next step is to do brain imaging [in humans] and animal experiments to really figure out what has changed in the brain.”
While the bimodal neuromodulation device is available through physicians in Ireland and Germany, it’s yet to be approved for use in the United States.
Other Tinnitus Treatments
Cognitive behavioral therapy is another tinnitus treatment. It works to change the way people think about and respond to tinnitus.
There’s also a hearing aid type device that generates low-level white noise to mask the sounds of tinnitus. Additionally, some tinnitus sufferers have had good results with biofeedback therapy and stress management.
For more information on tinnitus treatments, visit the American Tinnitus Association.
I have mild tinnitus myself, so I’ll be keeping an eye (and ear) on future research, including more from Prof. Lim and his colleagues. As with many issues, general health can affect the severity and impact of tinnitus, so – as always – it’s important to eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, sleep well and manage stress.
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