Double heals better
Those who suffer from tinnitus, the torment constant ear noises without external cause. A new, two-pronged treatment approach may now make life easier for at least some patients.
A new therapy that uses both noise and electrostimulation at the same time could relieve the symptoms of some tinnitus patients.
People with tinnitus permanently experience sounds that come from no external sound source. The causes are manifold, for example, it can be caused by extreme noise that the person was once exposed to, or a head or neck injury.
In the past, scientists have found evidence that, among other things, the disorder may be related to dysfunction in the snail nuclei in the brain. In this brain region sits a special form of nerve cells, which help us to determine, for example, from which direction a noise comes.
At the same time, these neurons are involved in suppressing tactile or vibratory sensations caused by the movement of the head or neck. In people with tinnitus, the cells appear to become hyperactive and to spontaneously fire even when there are no external acoustic signals. So they contribute to the development of annoying ear noises.
In order to put the activity of these nerve cells back on track, Shore and her colleagues developed a device that uses earphones to record specific sounds for their tinnitus via the headphones and, with the help of electrodes, light electrical impulses to the face or neck of the patient. The acoustic and sensory signals occur in a very specific time interval, which the scientists previously determined in animal experiments with regard to the greatest possible effect on the hyperactive neurons.
The researchers tested the procedure in a small clinical study on 20 patients with a special form of tinnitus: they were all characterized by the ability to temporarily alleviate their ear noises by, for example, squeezing their jaws, sticking out their tongues or tensing their necks. Shore and her colleagues suspect that those affected have intuitively found a way to influence the activity of the hyperactive nerve cells themselves.
Once the scientists had set their device for each patient individually, they taught them to install headphones and electrodes independently and use them for 30 minutes daily.
Subsequently, half of the subjects underwent therapy with noises and electric shocks for four weeks, while the other participants received a placebo treatment that did not require electrostimulation. After a break of another four weeks, the researchers finally turned the tables.
On average, the symptoms of the patients improved significantly through the dual therapy. The participants reported that the ear noises were then less loud than before. In some subjects, the volume decreased by up to 12 decibels - which corresponds approximately to the buzzing of a light bulb.
In two subjects, the tinnitus even disappeared completely. At the same time, the quality of life of the participants also increased. The severity of the impact varied from person to person. In contrast, placebo treatment produced no measurable effects.
In further tests, the researchers now want to determine the optimal length for the treatment and confirm the effect in a larger group of volunteers. They also want to find out if patients with other forms of tinnitus can benefit from the approach.