Auditory-somatosensory stimulation is a similar treatment approach to Kilgard’s, in that its goal is to retune the faulty patterns of brain activity that can cause tinnitus. It involves pairing sounds played in the ear with specially timed electric impulses, which are administered to touch-sensitive nerves using a pad attached to the neck, Dr. Shore explains about the research she’s working on.
Tinnitus is the hearing of sound when no external sound is present. While often described as a ringing, it may also sound like a clicking, hiss or roaring. Rarely, unclear voices or music are heard. The sound may be soft or loud, low pitched or high pitched and appear to be coming from one ear or both. Most of the time, it comes on gradually. In some people, the sound causes depression or anxiety and can interfere with concentration.
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Most tinnitus is subjective, meaning that only you can hear the noise. But sometimes it's objective, meaning that someone else can hear it, too. For example, if you have a heart murmur, you may hear a whooshing sound with every heartbeat; your clinician can also hear that sound through a stethoscope. Some people hear their heartbeat inside the ear — a phenomenon called pulsatile tinnitus. It's more likely to happen in older people, because blood flow tends to be more turbulent in arteries whose walls have stiffened with age. Pulsatile tinnitus may be more noticeable at night, when you're lying in bed and there are fewer external sounds to mask the tinnitus. If you notice any new pulsatile tinnitus, you should consult a clinician, because in rare cases it is a sign of a tumor or blood vessel damage.
The researchers paired electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve — a large nerve that runs from the head to the abdomen — with the playing of a tone. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is known to release chemicals that encourage changes in the brain. This technique, the scientists reasoned, might induce brain cells (neurons) to tune to frequencies other than the tinnitus one. For 20 days, 300 times a day, they played a high-pitched tone to 8 rats during VNS.
Tinnitus can arise anywhere along the auditory pathway, from the outer ear through the middle and inner ear to the brain's auditory cortex, where it's thought to be encoded (in a sense, imprinted). One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the hair cells in the cochlea (see "Auditory pathways and tinnitus"). These cells help transform sound waves into nerve signals. If the auditory pathways or circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting from the cochlea, the brain in effect "turns up the gain" on those pathways in an effort to detect the signal — in much the same way that you turn up the volume on a car radio when you're trying to find a station's signal. The resulting electrical noise takes the form of tinnitus — a sound that is high-pitched if hearing loss is in the high-frequency range and low-pitched if it's in the low-frequency range. This kind of tinnitus resembles phantom limb pain in an amputee — the brain is producing abnormal nerve signals to compensate for missing input.
Some patients choose to get involved in “tinnitus retraining,” which involves wearing a device in the ears that provides soothing music or noise, along with undergoing counseling. The goal is to help your body and brain learn to get accustomed to tinnitus noise, which reduces your negative reactions to unwanted sounds. Support and counseling during the process can be helpful for reducing anxiety. Researchers are now learning more about the benefits of coherent cognitive behavioral therapy interventions to help treat distress associated with tinnitus. (3)
The treatment involves implanting a small electrode into a person’s neck near the vagus nerve. The patient then listens to specific tones that are paired with small electric pulses sent to the vagus nerve. This vagus nerve stimulation, coupled with the sound-based stimulation of the auditory cortex, can “turn down” the patient’s tinnitus. Though, Kilgard adds, “It’s not 100 percent yet.”
Ringing-in-the-ears or a fullness-of-the-head sensation are the most common symptoms of tinnitus. While ringing is the most common experience, the noise can also sound like a buzzing, hissing or whizzing sound. It can range from a low pitch to a high pitch and may be soft or loud at times. For some, tinnitus seems to get louder at night, just before sleep when no other sounds are competing with it. Tinnitus can remain constant or come and go intermittently. In severe cases, the ringing in the ears is loud enough to interfere with work or daily activity, whereas those with mild tinnitus can experience soft ringing that is no more than a minor annoyance.