Tinnitus is a very annoying condition that involves the constant perception of a ringing, buzzing or whirring sound in the ears due to damage to the tiny hair cells, which allow electrical signals to be sent to the brain, triggering the perception of sound when no sound is present. When the hair cells are missing, this causes a permanent imbalance in the cochlea. Tinnitus can range from minor and occasional - something that most people experience at least once in their lives - to very severe tinnitus, which can be almost debilitating for some people. Many times, an exact cause for tinnitus is never found, but here are some various possible causes - some temporary and others permanent:
- Ear infection
- Middle ear tumor
- Impacted ear wax
- Circulation disorders
- Ototoxic medication
- Meniere's disease
- Noise-induced hearing loss
Currently, there are a few treatment options for tinnitus, including biofeedback, counseling, hypnosis, electrical stimulation, habituation therapy and commercial maskers. However, these treatments all serve to mask the ringing or teach you to live with it, rather than curing tinnitus. Additionally, treatment options have varying degrees of success. As our society ages and more service members are returning to the U.S. with NIHL and tinnitus, important research is being done to answer some vital questions: Can tinnitus be cured? And how?
Tinnitus and The Hearing Restoration Project
The Hearing Restoration Project (HRP) is working toward a solution for those suffering from tinnitus. The complications in working toward a solution are various. For example, not everyone who has hearing loss suffers from tinnitus, and many people with tinnitus have normal audiogram results. Researchers think that this means the damage is done to a part of the cochlea that the audiogram cannot detect.
Researchers at HRP and other groups are trying to find a way to repair the organs and erase tinnitus. Animals such as birds and fish are excellent specimens for studying hair cells and nerve damage in the ear because these creatures are able to regenerate lost or damaged hair cells. The challenge is that we can't know if an animal is experiencing tinnitus since they can't tell us. Still, researchers are forging ahead on animal studies to see what mechanisms would allow humans to regrow hair cells, or how these delicate, microscopic organs can be replaced.
In a recently reported groundbreaking study, researchers at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and Harvard Medical School were able to use a drug to successfully regenerate hair cells and in turn restore partial hearing in mice who had NIHL due to noise trauma. This massive success is an important step in the restoration of successful hearing, but the question remains - Can the restoration of hearing improve or erase tinnitus?
People at HRP think so, based on research that shows that when people have their hearing improved with a cochlear implant, their tinnitus is reduced, which is also true for those who have a stapedectomy to remedy abnormal bone growth in otosclerosis that leads to hearing loss. Also, most simply, many people experience tinnitus after going to a loud rock concert without proper hearing protection, but this goes away eventually, which is a positive sign. Still, much more research must be done to determine if the bothersome condition of tinnitus really can be cured for good by restoring hair cells. The mechanisms of tinnitus and its relation to hearing loss must be further studied, but there's reason to have hope.