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New device stimulates the brain to neutralize tinnitus sounds
Millions of people hear ringing, beeping, rustling or rattling in their ears. The grueling ear noises of tinnitus can make those affected white-hot. But now there is new hope for those affected. A team from the University of Michigan recently presented a new therapy against phantom tones. The new approach is intended to enable patients to influence their noise levels using a new device. The results of the study were published in the journal "Science Translational Medicine".
A key element of the new tinnitus therapy is a device that activates touch-sensitive nerves with precise time-controlled noises and weak electrical impulses, with the aim of returning damaged nerve cells to normal activity. After the first animal experiments, the device was also tested on 20 people with tinnitus. The human participants reported that after four weeks of daily use of the device, the volume of their noise decreased and their quality of life improved.
The root is in the trunk
"A specific region of the brainstem is the root of tinnitus," explains Susan Shore, who led the study team. "When the main neurons in this region become hyperactive and synchronize with each other, the phantom signal is transmitted to other centers where the perception takes place," Shore continues. If these signals can be stopped, one can also stop the tinnitus. "This is what our approach is trying to do," explains the study director.
Dual stimulant to treat tinnitus
The new therapy stimulates two senses. On the one hand, the device emits a sound in the ears and, on the other hand, a precisely timed, light electrical impulse is delivered to the cheek or neck. This triggers a process that leads to long-term changes in the speed at which the nerves deliver impulses. The approach aims to reset activity from the cells that normally help our brain receive and process both sounds and sensations.
Results from human participants
For some study participants, the volume of the perceived noise was roughly equivalent to the buzz of an electric lightbulb, and two participants even said that the buzzing of their ears had completely disappeared. No patient experienced any worsening of symptoms. Some said their phantom sounds were less harsh or penetrating or easier to ignore. "We are definitely encouraged by these results, but we need to optimize the duration of the treatments," says Shore. Now it is important to identify the subgroups of patients who can benefit most from the new treatment.
Classic tinnitus treatment
Current approaches to treating tinnitus focus on addressing the psychological stress that causes tinnitus, such as through cognitive behavior therapy. In other approaches, tones are used to mask the noise or to stimulate a special brain reaction. In more severe cases, some patients also turn to riskier treatments such as deep brain stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation. The approach now being reviewed would offer a new, non-invasive strategy to modulate and correct the abnormal nerve pathways. (fp)