As many as 23 million adults in the United States suffer from tinnitus - a ringing sound in the ears that won't go away. Scientists may have found a way to ease the currently cure-less affliction by rebooting the brain.
Tinnitus is more common than you think. One in ten seniors and 40 percent of military vets suffer from this affliction, which causes the brain to generate a noise that no one else can hear. It can be a ringing or a chirping, a whooshing or a clicking - no matter what it sounds like, only the person afflicted can hear it. I can only imagine how maddening that must be.
What causes this affliction?
"Brain changes in response to nerve damage or cochlear trauma cause irregular neural activity believed to be responsible for many types of chronic pain and tinnitus," said Michael Kilgard of the University of Texas...We believe the part of the brain that processes sounds — the auditory cortex — delegates too many neurons to some frequencies, and things begin to go awry," he said.
Kilgard is the co-author of a study published in the journal Nature that could give tinnitus sufferer's some relief from this aggravating condition.
The key is sending a reset signal to the auditory cortex.
Using lab rats as test subjects, researchers electronically stimulated the vagus nerve, which runs from the head down the neck and into the abdomen, while playing a high-pitched tone. When stimulated, the vagus nerve encourages the brain to produce neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and norepinephrine, which in turn encourage changes in the brain, effectively reorganizing the neurons to respond to the correct frequencies.
Rats treated with the combination of stimulus and sound exhibited normal levels of activity in their auditory cortex following treatment, indicating that the tinnitus had disappeared. Researchers say the rats remained unaffected by the affliction for up to three and a half months.
So it's a temporary fix, but it's potentially more effective than any other temporary fix.
"The key is that, unlike previous treatments, we're not masking the tinnitus, we're not hiding the tinnitus," said Kilgard. "We are returning the brain from a state where it generates tinnitus to a state that does not generate tinnitus. We are eliminating the source of the tinnitus."
Clinical trials are expected to kick off in the coming months.
Vagus nerve stimulation - the rebooting method - is already being used to treat people with epilepsy and depression, with the neural plasticity generated by the effect making it easier for scientists to handle brain circuits. Pair it with sound treats tinnitus. Perhaps pairing it with scent could help people suffering from olfactory reference syndrome?