Tinnitus: New Device Targets Brain's Neurons to Treat Ringing in the Ears

An experimental device might provide the first reliable treatment for ringing in the ears. A team of researchers developed a device that successfully alleviated tinnitus among participants in a recent study. Flickr

A new experimental device may finally bring relief to the millions of people who suffer from tinnitus, often referred to as "ringing in the ears," or sometimes "phantom sounds." A more precise definition, according to the American Tinnitus Association, is "the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present."

Tinnitus can manifest as not just ringing in the ears, but buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing or clicking, according to the ATA. It can be either temporary or chronic. It affects millions of people worldwide, and around 10 percent of American adults, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

NEW: Our scientists have studied #tinnitus for years - find out what happened in the first test of a device they developed: https://t.co/6U6JxsiqUY pic.twitter.com/kFjZb1hmZy

— Michigan Medicine (@umichmedicine) January 3, 2018

A team of researchers from the University of Michigan and McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, developed an experimental device that delivers 30 minutes of sensory stimulation, alternating between brief audio tones (delivered via headphones) and light pulses to the patient's neck or cheek. It successfully alleviated tinnitus among participants in a recent study. A paper describing the research was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Tinnitus is believed to originate in a part of the brain called the dorsal cochlear nucleus, whose neuron networks sometimes fire simultaneously even when they're not supposed to, according to the new paper. The new device, which patients can administer themselves at home, disrupts that synchronized firing. The researchers tested it on 20 human guinea pigs (after first achieving successful results on actual guinea pigs) who used it for half an hour each day for one month. Two participants reported being completely cured, while 11 others reported a reduction in volume or pitch. Notably, neither human nor guinea pig reported any results with only audio or somatosensory (a physical sensation like temperature or pressure; in this case, the face and neck pulses) stimulation—alternation between the two appears to be the key.

Tinnitus sufferers have never had a proven method of treatment, according to the ATA. There are a number of surgical interventions, but they tend to not work or can even result in hearing loss, according to a 2011 review of the options in the journal Surgical Neurology International.

Therapy is sometimes suggested, but that's basically because sufferers have no other option; it's not found to be effective for most people, according to NPR. Tinnitus is a physical condition, not a psychiatric one. It's different than misophonia—the hatred or fear of sound in a psychological context—which, though frequently reported, isn't a medically recognized condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Tinnitus can develop on its own or sometimes in response to excessive exposure to loud noises, like hearing a lingering echo of a concrete mixer or a rock concert even after leaving the scene. It's the most common service-related disability among military personnel, according to an American Association for the Advancement of Science press release.