Tinnitus, and the longterm hearing damage that can follow, is one of the most common negative effects of being a musician or working in the music industry. But perpetuated exposure to loud noises is starting to become increasingly problematic for regular club and festival goers too – the same goes for the countless people that listen to their music at too high a volume on headphones.
The World Health Organization put things into a rather alarming perspective last year, as they predicted that over a billion people are risking hearing loss. The University Of Texas, however, has been continuously researching ways to combat and actually reduce existing tinnitus by stimulating the nerve system in rats with hearing loss, and have come up with some very promising results that could one day mark the end to the debilitating condition.
The handbook of clinical neurology has called tinnitus the “hearing of sound when no external sound is present“. In many cases this means a ringing sound that has multiple underlying causes, although the most common is regular exposure to loud noises or music. For the club and festival public, it is common knowledge that not wearing earplugs can easily result in tinnitus and irreversible hearing damage, and while it’s still highly advisable to wear hearing protection while attending dance events, there are some positive signs from the study that point towards a possible cure.
Researchers Dr. Michael Kilgard and Dr. Navzer Engineer from The University of Texas at Dallas and University-affiliated biotechnology firm MicroTransponder report that sounds paired with stimulation of the vagus nerve (VNS) eliminated tinnitus in rats. A clinical trial in humans is due to begin in the next few months.
Kilgard reported that: “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. But when we paired tones with brief pulses of vagus nerve stimulation, we eliminated the physiological and behavioral symptoms of tinnitus in noise-exposed rats.”
In essence, what the UT Dallas researchers are doing is ‘retraining’ the brain to ignore the signals coming from the nerve system that simulate the ringing you think you hear. After weeks of monitoring the lab rats, the improvements have been shown to persist.
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The UT Dallas website states that research has already been done to test the VNS method on humans. “The translation from basic science to the clinic has been quite rapid,” Engineer said. “It’s exciting that the National Institutes for Health has been so supportive of our efforts to move this work along faster, in hopes of providing effective treatments to tinnitus patients.”
In 2011, the first human patient was treated in Europe. Following the start of human patient research, UT Dallas’ Dr. Will Rosellini founded MicroTransponder, sponsored by the school’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. MicroTransponder is currently developing and testing a more easily usable, wireless device that stimulates the vagus nerve.
As research for a waterproof, universal way of implementing VNS is still in progress, the jury is still out on whether this could be the definitive cure for tinnitus, but it does look like science is now closer than ever.