The Search for a Definitive Cure for Tinnitus ContinuesFor most of the millions worldwide who experience a ringing sensation or some other phantom sound in their ears, the symptom is mild and intermittent, presenting no more than an occasional annoyance. It is thus a phenomenon that has little impact on their lifestyles. For a significant number of individuals, however, these noises are an all-consuming intrusion that is near-impossible to ignore and, in some cases, their effect is actually disabling. For many years, researchers have striven to develop a tinnitus cure, but to date, their efforts have proved to be singularly unsuccessful.
That said, there has been substantial progress in developing ways in which to limit the degree to which the intrusive sounds affect the lifestyles of those who remain forced to live with them. One of the clues that has proved most helpful in this endeavour arose as a result of evidence of a link between these subjective sounds and hearing loss. More than half of those with auditory impairment report experiencing this annoying symptom. However, while both seem to be associated with damage to sensory cells in the inner ear, like speech and other external noises, the sounds of tinnitus actually manifest in the brain. It, therefore, seems likely that any cure will need to be directed at the auditory cortex.
In practice, among the options that have proved most successful, at least as a means to moderate the intensity and intrusive effects of this symptom, are those designed to provide an alternative auditory signal with which to distract the brain. Also aimed at re-programming the brain’s response to these anomalous sounds, although at a more cognitive level, therapeutic counselling has helped many patients to cope more effectively with the persistent ringing, buzzing, whistling, or chirping sensation in their ears. Even though neither of these approaches amount to a tinnitus cure, they remain the best treatment options to date and generally tend to be even more effective when undertaken in tandem.
In some instances, simply fitting the subject with a suitable hearing aid provides sufficient sound enrichment to drown out the annoying background sounds. Given that those sounds are invariably most evident during periods of silence, that amplifying incoming sound should have this effect seems quite understandable. Sadly, this is not a solution for every sufferer, or even for everyone who is sufficiently hard of hearing to warrant an assisted hearing device. Where amplification alone is insufficient and until the time that a definitive tinnitus cure is found, the best available option has been to introduce a more acceptable sound in order to mask the phantom ones.
The principle is identical to that often adopted in open-plan offices as a means with which to mask background chatter that might otherwise be a source of distraction to employees. Known as white noise, it is a blend of multiple frequencies of equal volume, which the ear quickly learns to ignore, yet which has the effect of covering up the more intrusive ringing and buzzing sounds. For those who require a hearing aid, some of the latest models have a white noise generator built in, while there are also accessories with which to add this feature to older models. For those with sound hearing, a smartphone app offers the same facility via a pair of earbuds. While waiting for that elusive tinnitus cure, masking technology is able to provide sufferers with a welcome respite.
Elusive it may be, but there have been some very promising developments in the search for a more permanent remedy. Like counselling and masking technology, the underlying principle focuses on re-training the brain, but with one important difference. In this case, the potential breakthroughs rely on techniques that attempt to modify the way in which the brain reacts to the stimuli responsible for generating those phantom sounds, rather than on ways to ignore them.
There are currently three main options under investigation and each carries the promise that a tinnitus cure may finally be within reach. Two of these options involve electrical stimulation of nerves in the neck that communicate with the brain, paired with sounds played simultaneously to the ear. In one study, the charges are applied directly to the vagus nerve by means of an implanted electrode, in the other, a pad placed on the neck delivers the charge via the skin. Both methods have proved effective in reducing the intensity of the subjective noise. The third potential tinnitus cure utilises electrodes attached to or implanted in the scalp.