Device treatment may silence ringing in the ears

Wed Jan 12, 2011 4:36pm EST
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By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A new treatment that retrains part of the brain that processes sound may help silence tinnitus -- a ringing in the ears that afflicts 10 percent of senior citizens and more than 40 percent of military veterans, U.S. researchers said on Wednesday.

They said a device that stimulates the vagus nerve in the neck while simultaneously playing different sounds for several weeks helped eliminate the condition in a group of rats.

A trial of the treatment in humans is set to start in Europe this year, said Dr. Navzer Engineer of MicroTransponder, a medical device company affiliated with The University of Texas at Dallas, whose study appears in the journal Nature.

Tinnitus is sometimes brought on by hearing loss. It occurs as cells in the inner ear are damaged, often from a loud noise. Current drugs help mask tinnitus, but the condition is incurable.

Engineer's team thinks tinnitus may be caused when too many brain cells become tuned to a specific tone in the brain. So his team set out to train the brain to ignore the nerve signals that cause the ringing sound.

To do this, they paired a device that sends electrical impulses to the vagus nerve in the neck with different sounds.

Stimulating this nerve releases chemicals such as acetylcholine and norepinephrine that trigger changes in the brain.

The University of Texas at Dallas team tested this approach in a series of experiments with rats, using an indirect but accepted method of testing hearing in animals.   Continued...