New research illuminates the relationship between tinnitus, hearing loss, and sensory input, and helps explain why many tinnitus sufferers can change the volume and pitch of their tinnitus's sound by clenching their jaw or by moving their head and neck. (Credit: Paul Mison/Flickr)

Treatment shows promise for hushing tinnitus

For tens of millions of Americans, there’s no such thing as the sound of silence. Instead, even in a quiet room, they hear a constant ringing, buzzing, hissing, humming, or other noise in their ears that isn’t real.

Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, may be the result of sensory nerves in the face and neck trying to compensate for a reduction of input from the ear’s cochlea, new research shows.

The findings by University of Michigan Medical School researchers offer a new target for treating the condition. The team has a patent pending and device in development based on the approach.

Susan Shore, the senior author of the paper, explains that her team has confirmed that a process called stimulus-timing dependent multisensory plasticity is altered in animals with tinnitus—and that this plasticity is “exquisitely sensitive” to the timing of signals coming in to a key area of the brain. The findings are published online in the Journal of Neuroscience.

That area, called the dorsal cochlear nucleus, is the first station for signals arriving in the brain from the ear via the auditory nerve. But it’s also a center where “multitasking” neurons integrate other sensory signals, such as touch, with the hearing information.

Shore, who leads a lab in the Kresge Hearing Research Institute, is a professor of otolaryngology and molecular and integrative physiology and of biomedical engineering.

Amplified touch

She explains that in tinnitus, some of the input to the brain from the ear’s cochlea is reduced, while signals from the somatosensory nerves of the face and neck, related to touch, are excessively amplified.

“It’s as if the signals are compensating for the lost auditory input, but they overcompensate and end up making everything noisy,” says Shore.

The new findings illuminate the relationship between tinnitus, hearing loss, and sensory input, and helps explain why many tinnitus sufferers can change the volume and pitch of their tinnitus’s sound by clenching their jaw or by moving their head and neck.

But it’s not just the combination of loud noise and overactive somatosensory signals that are involved in tinnitus, the researchers report.

It’s the precise timing of these signals in relation to one another that prompt the changes in the nervous system’s plasticity mechanisms, which may lead to the symptoms known to tinnitus sufferers.

Shore and her colleagues, including former biomedical engineering graduate student and first author Seth Koehler, hope their findings will eventually help many of the 50 million people in the United States and millions more worldwide who have the condition, according to the American Tinnitus Association. They hope to bring science-based approaches to the treatment of a condition for which there is no cure—and for which many unproven would-be therapies exist.

Prevalence of risk

Tinnitus especially affects baby boomers, who, as they reach an age at which hearing tends to diminish, increasingly experience tinnitus. The condition most commonly occurs with hearing loss, but can also follow head and neck trauma, such as after an auto accident, or dental work.

Loud noises and blast forces experienced by members of the military in war zones also can trigger the condition. Tinnitus is a top cause of disability among members and veterans of the armed forces.

Researchers still don’t understand what protective factors might keep some people from developing tinnitus, while others exposed to the same conditions experience tinnitus.

In this study, only half of the animals receiving a noise-overexposure developed tinnitus. This is similarly the case with humans—not everyone with hearing damage ends up with tinnitus. An important finding in the new paper is that animals that did not get tinnitus showed fewer changes in their multisensory plasticity than those with evidence of tinnitus. In other words, their neurons were not hyperactive.

Customized treatment

Shore is now working with other students and postdoctoral fellows to develop a device that uses the new knowledge about the importance of signal timing to alleviate tinnitus. The device will combine sound and electrical stimulation of the face and neck in order to return to normal the neural activity in the auditory pathway.

“If we get the timing right, we believe we can decrease the firing rates of neurons at the tinnitus frequency, and target those with hyperactivity,” says Shore. She and her colleagues are also working to develop pharmacological manipulations that could enhance stimulus timed plasticity by changing specific molecular targets.

But, she notes, any treatment will likely have to be customized to each patient, and delivered on a regular basis. And some patients may be more likely to derive benefit than others.

The National Institutes of Health supported the research. The Coulter Translational Research Partnership, which is supported by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation and the University of Michigan, is funding the device project.

Source: University of Michigan

chat20 Comments

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20 Comments

  1. Andacar

    I look forward to this research with interest, though excuse me if I don’t get my hopes up too much. It isn’t me being a fatalist, just practical.

  2. Diane

    I have suffered with tinnitus for at least 50 years. I have learned to ignore it. I hope this research can help many others. At 71 years old, it’s too late for me.

  3. Abraham

    Some years ago I developed tinnitus and hearing loss, now total, in my right ear as a result of an acoustic neuroma. I have undergone successful gamma knife therapy which stopped the growth of the tumour. The doctors told me that my hearing loss and tinnitus were permanent in spite of the radiation. Does this new approach have any promise in my case? While my reading of the above brief says no, I thought it worthwhile to ask.

  4. Stuart

    In my earliest childhood memories I have had ringing ears. It was disruptive and debilitating. After years of searching and much wasted money, no “remedy” has worked. After 40 years of constant crickets and whistles I’ve just accepted that it is the way things are.

  5. Janet

    I never used to have tinnitus, but many of the meds I now take mention ringing in the ears as a side effect.

  6. Stacy

    Could this help lead to curing it? I hope so even though i know its years and years away… Means that theres still hope!

  7. Barry Keate

    When someone with tinnitus can alter the volume and pitch of the tinnitus sound by clenching their jaw or moving their head, it is referred to as somatic tinnitus. The most common somatic signals are caused by spasm of the sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM) or by temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ).

    Source: http://www.tinnitusformula.com/library/somatic-tinnitus

  8. jake jerde

    thats years away try acupuncture

  9. Sufferer

    When I first heard of Tinnitus, and even listened to a mp3 of how it sounds, I began to feel really sorry for the sufferers. I was also very worried about getting it myself. Destiny is a sadist.

  10. Thomas

    Let me know if it works. I’ll be waiting…

  11. SG

    I developed tinnitus after getting some dental work done. I have seen neurologist and ENT’s with several MRI’s, MRA’s and cat scans, to no avail, no cause found. It has significantly affected my hearing and is bothersome to constantly hear the ringing in my ear. I hope this new study has found the cure to this issue.

  12. Roger

    Hi all, I have had the cicadas in my ears for ages due to machinary use and the best ear muffs can`t stop it from getting worse after continued noise. It does get a little less after a few days of quiet. Even ear plugs and ear muffs on at the same time don`t seem to stop it returning with a vengence. Such is life. I shall be watching to see if anything can be done.

  13. Steve Leach

    I’ve had tinnitus for almost 3 years – I am now 57. The only time I get relief from it is in the late summer when the crickets are out. When I find a spot where crickets gather, I guess in the 100s, I stay for a while. For the most part I can ignore it, but I certainly dislike a silent home. Music all the time, and headphones overnight.

  14. Carl

    I willing to try the new treatment.
    Anything that gets rid of the whistling sound has got to be worth a try

  15. James Teschner

    I am 58 years old and first noticed tinnitus when I bought a house in France and experienced the quiet of country life. At the time I was living in New York City so I never was aware of it. I now live in France full time and I love the sound of silence, except this terrible ringing makes it impossible to enjoy silence. It seems to be getting louder, and of course, that’s terribly discouraging and a bit scary (might it escalate, the fear says). IF you have any kind of positive treatments, I would love to be informed. I realize people suffer from much, much worse things than this, and I also count my blessings, but I admit, I would like to be free of this. I suspect my “freedom” will come in accepting it. But if there are any developments, I would really like to know.

    Most sincerely,
    James Teschner

  16. Beckam

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  17. Maria

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  18. Joella Drury

    I developed tinnitus after an ear infection 2 years ago..it is non stop. I tell my brain that it is the sound of the air-conditioner going (when in the office) or crickets when at home..I live near the ocean and have also deluded my brain to believe what I am hearing is the ocean. It gets much worse under stress or when I am ill, I cannot delude myself then.

  19. mel doughty

    I’ve had hissing in my ears since a tooth extraction 3wks ago; before that I only got it when I clenched my jaw. I’ve reacted badly to general anaesthetic before, so not sure if it was the local I had for the extraction, or the pulling on the jaw! (My neck’s a bit crunchy but not particularly stiff.)

  20. Toni

    I have had high pitch tinnitus for over a year and pray daily for a cure.

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