Tinnitus or “ringing in the ears” is an abnormality in the perception of sound. Individuals may experience tinnitus after a recent exposure to a loud noise such as a gunshot. The resulting damage to the sensory cells of the ears changes signals transmitted to the brain causing an illusion of the presence of sound. This condition may resolve spontaneously but still warrants an investigation since it may be an evidence of an underlying condition. Currently, there is no available permanent tinnitus treatment.
According to Dr. James Battery, director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), almost 24 million Americans are affected by tinnitus. Furthermore, he also pointed out that tinnitus is observed to be the number one service-related disability for returning veterans.
In line with this, a spin-off company based in Dallas, MicroTransporter, have recently developed The Serenity System which has the potential to be a new tinnitus treatment procedure. It is a device which is paired with another existing therapy called the Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS). The latter has been previously utilized in the treatment of epilepsy and depression.
The design of The Serenity System is such that it is fully implantable and can even be used at home. While undergoing therapy, the patient sits comfortably on a chair while wearing headphones which plays different tones. These tones are consequently paired with the stimulation of the Vagus Nerve reinforcing the brain to focus to that tone and store it in its memory.
With this technique, there are tones played during the therapy which are consequently paired with vagal stimulation. This procedure strengthens the representation of these tones in the brain cortex. In time, it is believed that constant therapy will decrease the attention given by the brain to the tinnitus tone thus learning to ignore it completely. A biomedical science research published in Nature showed that these auditory changes persisted for several weeks after treatment in animal studies.
The National Institutes of Health will conduct a small clinical trial to see the efficiency of this device in human. Volunteers will be recruited in four centers through an agreement with MicroTransporter. The trial, which is also supported by the NIDCD, may mark a cornerstone in the treatment of tinnitus.
Patients are usually offered with hearing aids or masking devices for the management of different hearing disorders, explained Dr. Gordon Hughes, director of clinical trials at the NIDCD. However these do not cure the tinnitus. With this new innovation, he stated that there is now “the possibility of reducing or eliminating the bothersome perception of tinnitus in some patients.”