Anyone who has experienced tinnitus — an uncontrolled ringing or roaring noise in the ears — knows how maddening it can be. All the more so because there really is no treatment to stop it. Doctors typically offer patients an array of remedies that may or may not help, including tranquilizers, antidepressants and mechanical devices that attempt to mask the plaguing noises. But thus far there is nothing that has worked well and consistently. I was thrilled, then, to learn that a recent study reported in the January 12, 2011, online journal Nature offers something completely different — a new way to train the brain to ignore the nerve signals that simulate ringing.

The research, conducted by scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas, examined a way to reprogram the brain so that it no longer “hears” the tones that have become so intensely disturbing. Using a form of treatment called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), already in use to help patients with treatment-resistant epilepsy or depression, the scientists first induced tinnitus in rats (how they did this is way too complicated to go into here, but believe me, they did it — and confirmed it by the rats’ failure to respond to a gap in the background noise) and then set out to see if they could correct it. They delivered painless electrical pulses to the vagus nerve, which leads to the auditory cortex in the brain. The rats were exposed to tones with frequencies just above and below the range of the tinnitus sounds. Results: The rats now responded appropriately to the gap in the background noise (they recognized the silence) — and scans of their brains three weeks after the therapy showed what the researchers expected to see, that tinnitus had been stopped in all of them.

How Great Is This?

To get an expert perspective on this research, I called Steven Lamm, MD, a member of the clinical faculty at NYU School of Medicine, who told me that tinnitus is “probably one of the most annoying, irritating and exasperating complaints that a patient can have. It’s like an alarm clock that can’t be turned off.” According to Dr. Lamm this research demonstrates that the nerve activity of the brain is capable of modification. “Tinnitus involves an abnormality of the brain circuitry,” he said. “If you reshuffle the circuitry, you may be able to eliminate the unwanted noise.”

On the horizon

VNS treatment could be an improvement over current tinnitus therapies because it may offer a possible end to the condition without any significant side effects — unlike antidepressants and tranquilizers — say the study’s authors.

Research on this therapy in humans is due to begin this year. People with tinnitus will participate in clinical trials much like those that worked with the rats. They will have electrodes attached to their vagus nerves in an outpatient procedure and then, every day over a period of three weeks, they will visit the clinic to listen to a range of tones and receive electrical impulses to the vagus nerve. The hope is that researchers will for the first time be able to “reset” the brain’s circuitry to actually eliminate tinnitus for these people. We don’t know whether the treatment will result in any collateral problems — such as, perhaps, the inability to hear certain actualtones. But given the fact that about 10% of adults are plagued by tinnitus, this treatment could be nothing less than a godsend… an end to the ringing alarm clock in your head that refuses to turn off. I’ll keep a very close eye on this research!