There are millions of Americans who suffer from tinnitus, a medical condition where patients are constantly plagued by phantom noises in the form of ringing or buzzing.
Tinnitus can get so bad that it keeps those affected from working or functioning at all. Worst of all, tinnitus cases are often chronic and have no cure, Gizmodo reports. Current therapies include cognitive behavioral treatment to help people cope with the stress of hearing these sounds, using actual sounds to overlay the noise, or invasive brain surgery that may or may not work.
A new study seems to offer a promising solution to this perpetual ache – a non-invasive treatment that goes directly to the root of tinnitus, making life much more bearable for patients. Researchers at the University of Michigan may have figured out how to short-circuit the neurological process that produces tinnitus.
The primary theory explaining this condition is that tinnitus begins when neurons misfire in the dorsal cochlear nucleus – one of the regions of the brain stem where auditory information is initially processed. The neurons, called fusiform cells, are supposed to fire when the brain gets input from outside, which is the first link in a chain that leads to a person hearing correctly.
In tinnitus sufferers, this synchronic process is off, and the fusiform cells fire whenever they want to, leading people to think they’re hearing sounds. This imbalance can be caused by a myriad of factors such as ear damage or infections, scientists believe.
The researchers used guinea pigs to create a device they believe can retrain the brain in some cases of tinnitus. Susan Shore of the university’s Kresge Hearing Research Institute, lead author on the study, said,
We worked out in animal studies that specific combinations of sound and pulses could either increase or decrease the activity of these [fusiform] cells that activate the rest of the brain.
The device is in headphones and electrodes placed on a person’s neck and head that sends bursts of sound and mild electrical shocks that are supposed to reset the fusiform cells and decrease the frequency of tinnitus.
The team plans to test the device with a larger group of people in order to see if it can indeed contribute to helping the 50 million Americans who constantly live with tinnitus.
The study was published in Science Translational Medicine.