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Noisy Eyeballs, Ringing in the Ears (tinnitus) and Baldness: The Luck of Medical Science?

So I’m sitting in my favorite coffee hot spot, web surfing, when I come across this article in Scientific American on noisy eyeballs. And suddenly, after my fourth double shot latte I could swear I could hear my eyeballs. I think it was the power of suggestion coupled with eight cups of espresso, but I heard those orbs squeak each time I blinked.

Happy Accidents In Medicine or Serendipity in Science

First, to allay your fears, the squeaking stopped as soon as I started reading again and switched to decaf.

Here’s the story. Lots of guys enrolled in medical studies for two high-blood medications. During these two field studies, test subjects began to develop side effects – something that usually sets off alarm bells and stops studies in their tracks. Ah, but not in these two cases.

You see, the men who were taking these test drugs for high blood pressure noticed a couple of things. First, there was a lot more pizzazz in their romance and in case number two, test subjects began growing hair where there was none before. In other words, men experiencing baldness were growing hair. Hmmm.

So, did the pharmas that designed these meds – Pfizer and Upjohn – stop the trials? No way. The test subjects didn’t give a hoot about blood pressure. All they knew was love was in the air and they were growing hair. Stopping the trials would have caused riots in the streets!

The results of these studies of a supposed high blood pressure medication? The little blue pill, Viagra, and Rogaine that’s boosted male self-esteem to new heights. Male pattern baldness disappears in 80% of men who spray this stuff on their scalps.

Now, Upjohn and Pfizer didn’t set out to improve the lives of men. These were side effects of a drug intended to lower blood pressure. Happy accidents for men (and their partners) everywhere.

Noisy Eyeballs and Ringing In the Ears

noisy eyeballs and tinnitus
Noisy eyeballs and tinnitus?

Oh great, my eyeballs are squeaking again.

The author of the article in SA, R. Douglas Fields, developed noisy eyeballs. Each time he moved his eyeballs he heard a grating sound. How long you figure it’ll take before THAT drives you batty.

As luck would have it, R. Douglas runs into Josef Rauschecker, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the home of the Hoyas, Georgetown. Any way, the article’s author starts chatting up his noisy eyeballs and Rauschecker, an expert on the brain’s auditory cortex, drops a quick “Have your serotonin levels checked” just like that.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain – a chemical responsible for the movement of signals from point A to point B in the brain. Seems the noisy eyeball expert had been conducting tests on subjects who experienced tinnitus – ringing in the ears.

Tinnitus and Those Darned Noisy Eyeballs

First, tinnitus is one of those things that lowers life’s quality. Imagine a non-stop, 24/7/365 ring (or buzz, swooshing, hissing, etc). You hear it everywhere, though no one else can. Talk about frustrating!

Dr. Rauschecker had discovered that brain scans of folks with tinnitus showed that these men and women had a smaller nucleus accumbens. This nut-sized section of the brain served as the valve that controlled the amount of serotonin released by the brain. Hmmm.

You see, the nucleus accumbens send signals to another part of the brain called the thalamus (no, you don’t have to know this for the test). Just know that the studies conducted on subjects with tinnitus led to a cure for crunchy eyeball noises.

It’s In The Brain

The thalamus, with the help of the nucleus accumbens, regulates the amount of serotonin in the brain. This enables us to block out sounds and prevent sensory overload. Imagine if you took in every sight, smell, taste, touch and sound. You’d have squeaky eyelids, too. And I’ll bet you’d switch to decaf.

It’s Dr. Rauschecker’s belief that tinnitus, at least in some cases, isn’t always an ear problem. Traditionally tinnitus has been associated with some level of damage to the inner ear and/or auditory nerve within the brain; however, Dr. Rauschecker believes serotonin levels in the brain may also play a role in tinnitus. The cure? Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRI drugs.

Now, these drugs are currently prescribed to treat depression and anxiety and other stress disorders. Though not available for use in treating tinnitus just yet, someday, based on the test results, doctors may be prescribing drugs used to treat depression to people who suffer with mind-numbing tinnitus.

First, a big part of managing tinnitus is to remain calm. The condition usually leads to stress (understandably) but if the individual is calm and keeps stress at a minimum, the tinnitus lessens, not because of something that occurs in the ear, but because of something that occurs in the auditory cortex – the hearing center – of the brain.

The ringing in the ears and the noisy eyeballs may be the result of a lack of serotonin.

A Simple Solution to a Huge Problem

No the cure for tinnitus isn’t here just yet, though according to the American Tinnitus Association 50 million Americans (1 out of 6) experience ringing in the ears. Or hissing in the ears, whistling, chirping – all kinds of sounds that aren’t supposed to be there.

Over 12 million of us have sought medical attention to address the symptoms of tinnitus, and to date, the treatments have been limited to such things as learning to “hear through” the sounds (retraining the brain), noise cancellation hearing aids that help some tinnitus sufferers and the latest in tinnitus therapy is Neuromonics which utilizes listening to music to retrain the brain to focus less on the tinnitus.

But now, the luck of science may lead to the discovery of a medication to ease or even tinnitus in some people. Medications prescribed to treat depression and anxiety disorders may also help eliminate, or at least mitigate, tinnitus.

Serendipity science.

That, and switching to decaf at the java house have eliminated my squeaky eyelids, the SA author’s noisy eyeballs and tinnitus experienced by 28 million of us.

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