Quieting That Ringing In the Ears

Full confession: I’m a sucker for examples of how sensory input changes the brain. And if the changes alleviate a problem that can range from annoying to devastating, extra points.

A study of a treatment for tinnitus therefore caught my eye. According to results presented last week at the American Academy of Audiology, a device called Neuromonics and made by a company of the same name brought measurable improvement. On the standard evaluation of how incapacitating the ringing in the ear was, the device reduced patients’ psychological and emotional misery from 46 to 20 after six months of treatment, scientists led by the Cleveland Clinic’s Sharon Sandridge reported. It was a small study (just 45 patients), but intriguing nonetheless.

Tinnitus affects something like 50 million Americans. Lots of things can cause it, including repeated exposure to loud noise, but what’s interesting is that the problem is in the brain, not the ears. The Neuromonics device therefore targets the auditory cortex. It delivers a special sound (determined by the frequency of the ringing a patient reports) embedded in soothing music. Listened to daily, the sound seems to rewire the auditory cortex, training the brain to filter out the internal sounds so the tinnitus doesn’t intrude on consciousness.

It was Edward Taub of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who, with colleagues, pioneered the idea that neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change its structure) could be tapped to treat tinnitus, as in this study. Taub had already shown that feeding the brain sensory information could rewire the motor cortex to help patients whose arm or leg had been paralyzed by a stroke, and the tinnitus work was a logical extension of that. It still has a ways to go, but score another point for the idea of tapping into the brain’s innate malleability.