Researchers close in on tinnitus breakthrough

Tinnitus – ringing in the ears – is not the monopoly of heavy metal drummers, it also affects 14 per cent of the population.

So, the news that scientists have successfully ‘rewired‘ the brains of 326 sufferers in a trial is significant.

“The multinational team of researchers reports that 86 per cent of the trial’s participants – of those who stuck with the treatment for 12 weeks – experienced a substantial reduction in the severity of their symptoms,” reports The New Daily.

The potential treatment, called bimodal neuromodulation, uses a device that combines “sounds with zaps to the tongue” to target brain cells that are firing “abnormally”.

Through studies in both humans and animals, Dr Hubert Lim’s team and others previously reported that “electrically stimulating touch-sensitive neurons in the tongue or face can activate neurons in the auditory system”.

Pairing these zaps with sounds “appears to rewire brain circuits associated with tinnitus”.

The Guardian reports that the British Tinnitus Association (BTA) has experienced a surge in demand for its services, with a 256 per cent increase in the number of web chats and a 16 per cent increase in phone calls to its helpline between May and December 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.

“Tinnitus-related searches on Google have soared following the outbreak of COVID-19, with searches for ‘tinnitus causes’ jumping 83 per cent in February 2021 compared with February 2020. Searches for ‘tinnitus’ grew by 50 per cent over the same period, according to data collated by software company SEMrush.”

Tinnitus is recognised as a symptom of COVID-19 and long-COVID.

It is not yet known if COVID-19 exacerbates pre-existing tinnitus or the disease and medications used to counter it cause the condition.

Some Americans have reported tinnitus after receiving COVID vaccinations.

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The participants in the bimodal neuromodulation trial achieved “a statistically and clinically significant reduction in tinnitus symptom severity”.

The researchers concluded that their results “support the safety and potential utility of bimodal neuromodulation for tinnitus”.

The device used for the trial consists of “wireless headphones that deliver sequences of audio tones layered with wide-band noise to both ears, combined with electrical stimulation pulses delivered to 32 electrodes on the tip of the tongue” by a device known as a Tonguetip.

Prior to treatment, the device is “configured to the patient’s hearing profile and optimised to the patient’s sensitivity level for tongue stimulation”.

The researchers, led by Dr Lim, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and otolaryngology at the University of Minnesota, are now undertaking another large clinical trial to study the effects of changing the stimulation over longer periods.

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In New Zealand, researchers have investigated whether tinnitus can be treated by creating an association with sounds from nature. In the study, 18 people with tinnitus listened for an hour a day over three months to recordings of sounds matched to their tinnitus, which then morphed into combinations of real-world noises such as cicadas or birds chirping, a fan, water, or rain.

A third of the participants in the study reported their tinnitus because less noticeable or reduced in volume.

Dr Grant Searchfield, an associate professor in the faculty of medical and health sciences at the University of Auckland, says the results included indications of changes in brain activity.

“We’re beginning to harness artificial intelligence to link brain activity to improvements in tinnitus, meaning we can predict who will benefit from treatment and who won’t,” he said.

Tinnitus has been difficult to treat because it can have many causes, and it manifests differently for each patient.

It is classified as “loud, irritating and relentless ringing or buzzing” sounds in the ear, reports Men’s Health.

“The ringing can be intermittent or continuous; some people find it intrusive and burdensome while others aren’t bothered by it until they get in a quiet room.”

Dr Kristen Angster says some people hear a ringing sound, others a buzzing, clicking, pulsing or whooshing noise.

The condition is most often the result of some sort of hearing loss.

“The brain recognises that it’s missing sounds and has this now adaptive feedback loop where it adds sound back in,” Dr. Angster says.

For some, the noises become so annoying they lead to depression and anxiety.

“Diagnosing tinnitus is usually very quick once a doctor hears a patient’s symptoms, but finding the underlying cause is often a much more difficult task,” reports the US NBC network.

While common causes include loud music, excessive ear wax, ear or sinus infections, medications and head injuries, tinnitus can also be a result of heart conditions, neurological disorders, hormone changes and anaemia and each case requires different treatments.

Have you experienced tinnitus? Do you prefer the high-tech or nature sounds approach to treatment? Has anything worked for you? Add your experiences in the comments section below.

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Written by Will Brodie