New treatment using electrical impulses could cure or ease tinnitus

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For those unfamiliar with tinnitus, it is a frustrating condition where the sufferer hears buzzing, whistling, or other sounds from inside their body. It can be a passing occurrence for some, but in many cases it is chronic and incurable. Furthermore, there is no single treatment, so the only thing that can help sufferers up until now has been counselling, sound therapy or behavioural therapy. However, a new study has uncovered a potential way to cure the condition by targeting the neurological roots of the problem.

Researchers were able to target neutrons in the part of the brain that is responsible for processing auditory information, known as fusiform cells. When these neutrons misfire, they can transmit phantom signals to other parts of the brain, perceived as sound; this is the cause of tinnitus. The leader of the research at the University of Michigan Medical School, Dr Susan Shore, commented; “If we can stop these signals, we can stop tinnitus.”

The research team tested a device, which combined sound pulses through headphones, and electrical pulses delivered to the cheek or neck. The pulses are timed to reset the activity of the brain’s fusiform cells, in a process called stimulus-timing dependent plasticity. The device was initiated in a human study with 20 volunteers over 16 weeks. The device using shocks and sounds was used on one half of the participants for four weeks, while a fake device using only sounds was used by the other half. After the four weeks, there was a four week break, after which participants used the other device for the same amount of time, followed by another four week break.

The fake device changed nothing for the participants, however the feedback on the device using sounds and shocks was positive, reporting an overall decrease in experiencing tinnitus; two subjects even said their condition disappeared completely during use. The results are positive as there was an overall improvement in quality of life reported for those using the device. However, all the participants had a particular type of tinnitus, which could be reduced by certain jaw or neck movements, and for other sufferers this is not the case so the treatment may be less effective.

Professor shaw said; “We’re definitely encouraged by these results, but we need to optimise 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 manoeuvres.”