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

chat59 Comments

59 Comments

  1. Margaret

    I’m 65yrs old and I’ve had tinnitus for 7 hrs. It’s very distracting and silence is the enemy.I would like to get rid of it and I’ve tried all the remedies available to no avail.Its really testing and it deters you from socialising PLEASE HELP

  2. Susan

    I have had annoying Tinnitus for probably the last two years. I have noticed over the last six months it has gotten louder and keeps me up at night. I look forward to the day that you have a treatment that will be available to us suffers. If you need any human testers I would be more than happy to help you out :-). Thank you for the work you are doing so far. I enjoyed reading this piece. Best regards, Susan

  3. shabana khan

    I have a sound like strong wind or a sound like washing machine in my right ear only. Its more like wosh wosh woosh I really cant explain. Its being more than 5yrs but I m sick and tired now I really need help. Pls do let me know if there is any treatment for that.

  4. Johnny

    Oh please god. Let this be something. For us who deal with this every second of our waking day. I’ve had it for 6 7 years. Doctors can’t do diddly. I clench my jaw it has to have something to do with it. I can hear my heartbeat or the rush of blood. When I was a teen i distictly remember hearing waves of this rushing sound in my ears. It came and went. Then the high pitched ringing came to stay. Its horrible and only
    Getting.worse. I’m in Massachusetts. Ill go anywhere see anyone. Try anything because nothing has been offered besides therapy. I could be with 200 monks in the Himalays meditating and if still here the ringing. Stop caffeine? Yup. Sugar? Yup. Alcohol? Yup. The only time I get peace is when I sleep but the second. My eyes open?

  5. Ruben l. Ruiz

    The US government is asleep at the wheel. Its an epidemic only to get worse. Over 60,000,000 are effected. More on the way. Thats a huge number of people that could be working better and giving to society instead of being pent up with hideous anxiety, depression and insomnia. How many more millions will it take?

  6. Norman Harper

    I have had tinnitus in both ears now for 48 years. It started after an ice pack was placed don my neck to help reduce a fever of 107. It was worse in my left ear than my right ear to begin with. About 5 years ago I had hip replacement surgery. Immediately after having an ice pack put on my back to help reduce fever the ringing became louder,

    One month ago I suffered a gum infection and the ringing became even louder and now it is louder in my right ear and has diminished my right ear hearing ability.

    I would like to get rid of the high pitched ringing. It is through my personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ that I have been able to live with this condition for all this time and it is my faith that helps me cope with the increased ringing now. A cure would seem miraculous to me. I appreciate this kind of research and hope for such a cure.

  7. Diana. H

    I have been suffering with high pitch ringing tinnitus for the past 2 months which showed up one evening when I went to cry and felt a pressure built up on the back side of my upper head and I have had it since. I have had MRI..EEG and where all normal. I also had several hearing tests done by audiologists and I have no problem with hearing loss just some above 14000hz. This whole thing this has taken a toll on me. It is affecting my overall life and wellbeing. I am struggling just to get through each day. My audiologist gave me hearing aids as TRT treatment and amplified the high frequency on the aids but I feel like this has not helped yet as I still hear my T over the aids. Maskers on the aids hardly work as I can still hear my T while wearing the maskers. It is almost as if my T competes with any noise around to try and surpass the noise. So I am always stuck listening to the T than any other noise. I am at my wits end and would love a cure to be found soon. If you ever need human testers I will be able to help and In return you can help me please let me know.

  8. swapna

    Hi, there are lot of people suffering with very stressful health problem ,this condition nt only making patient suffer, their family’s also affected by them so much..some are suicidal really and dying by suicide because unable to tolerate tinnitus..by gods grace n ur research effort if cure found please let me know, because I am also one of the tinnitus sufferers.

  9. Paul Houghton

    I have a very close friend in Toronto a man 66 in good health except tinnitus in right ear that started right after removal of an impacted wisdom tooth 4 years ago.
    Do you now have a confirmed treatment to eliminate the tinnitus?
    A reply yes or no would be appreciated. thank you.P.

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