People with tinnitus typically hear a ringing or buzzing sound that nobody else seems to notice. The constant noise can be debilitating in worst-case scenarios. But there may soon be some relief in the form of a non-invasive treatment that can lessen or even eliminate those symptoms.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, 20 million Americans suffer from a level of tinnitus that they consider "burdensome," while an additional 2 million people classify their condition as "extreme and debilitating." Tinnitus is the most common cause of service-related disability among military veterans.
Using headphones and a pair of electrodes, a research team, led by University of Michigan Medical School professor Susan Shore, created a device that may be able to reduce or even eliminate the annoying and pervasive sounds associated with tinnitus.
The device works by re-training the aberrant nerve reactions going on in the brain. Basically, tinnitus occurs when nerve cells in the brain, called fusiform cells, become hyperactive and start sending phantom signals to the brain about sounds that aren't actually there. "If we can stop these signals, we can stop tinnitus," said Shore in a statement. "That is what our approach attempts to do."
Shore and her team recruited tinnitus patients who had the ability to alter their symptoms by shaking their heads, clenching their jaws, or sticking out their tongues. Researchers used electrodes to apply small electrical impulses to the part of the head being used to change the tinnitus symptoms. Participants were trained how to use the device and told to perform 30-minute electrode sessions for four weeks. In a control group, patients were given a device that looked similar but did not deliver electrical impulses.
Patients in the control group did not experience any change in their tinnitus symptoms. But those who used the active device reported a reduction in the harshness and/or decibel level of their symptoms and some even reported that the ringing had nearly disappeared.
"We're definitely encouraged by these results," noted Shore, "but we need to optimize the length of treatments, identify which subgroups of patients may benefit most, and determine if this approach works in patients who have nonsomatic forms of the condition that can't be modulated by head and neck maneuvers."
You can learn more about the project in the video below: