Experimental device tested to help treat ringing in the ears

For people with tinnitus, the persistent sense of ringing in the ears is mildly annoying at best and disabling at worst.

But a new device may help ease the phantom noises, researchers report.

The experimental device uses precisely timed sound and skin stimulation to target nerve activity in the brain. It quelled the bothersome sounds in lab animals and improved quality of life in a test group of 20 humans, according to University of Michigan researchers.

“Animal studies have identified specific nerve cells in the brain, called fusiform cells, that signal phantom sounds to the rest of the brain,” said lead researcher Susan Shore.

In someone with tinnitus, fusiform cells increase activity as they normally would in the presence of a real sound, she explained. “These signals are transmitted to the auditory part of the brain and are interpreted as sound when there is no sound stimulus,” said Shore, a professor of otolaryngology, physiology and biomedical engineering.

Some 15 percent of Americans suffer from tinnitus. About 2 million can’t work or carry out other daily activities because of the constant ringing or grinding in their ears or the resulting stress it causes, the researchers said in background notes. The problem often stems from exposure to loud noise, or head and neck trauma.

The new study shows fusiform cell activity can be tamed using a combination of sounds and mild electrical stimulation of the skin.

The home device tested in the study supplies the stimulation through electrodes and earphones, Shore said.

Patients used the device for 30 minutes a day for four weeks. After one week, the volume of the tinnitus returned, but the improvement in the quality of life lasted up to several weeks, she noted.

Patients who used a phony device had no improvement in their tinnitus, Shore said.

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