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18th September 2014

That weird ringing sound in your head – it may be tinnitus

Nine months ago, Elias Brandt switched his television off after watching a movie. The room was silent but he still heard something – a high frequency squeak that he compares to a train slamming on its brakes.

The source of the sound turned out to be his own ears. His doctor told him he had tinnitus.

Elias, a fortysomething father from Freiburg and frequent concertgoer, has always liked his music loud. Before the birth of his son, he had rarely spent a car ride without his electro beats at full blast. He soon discovered that this is an all-too-common preface to the story of a tinnitus sufferer. Most cases of tinnitus present themselves following some kind of hearing loss which can stem from a mix of ageing, injury or long-term exposure to loud noise.

“When I explain it to people, most have no idea what I’m talking about,” says Elias. “The only ones who really get it are the people who have it themselves.” When they don’t sound like squeaky train brakes, Elias says the sounds can also resemble high winds, “like when you’re on a windy beach. It’s a whooshing sound that moves from one ear to the other.”

Elias’s case of tinnitus is a considered a mild one, but that doesn’t mean he can just ignore it. “I now make decisions about where I go based on noise levels and have even started measuring decibel levels in a room with an iPhone app.” This means he can control his exposure to loud music, but even normal street noise or his two-year old son’s shouting can aggravate the problem. “I have to wear earplugs when riding my Vespa which is not the best idea, but I don’t see any way around it.”

Sending the wrong message

When you experience hearing loss, the way your ears communicate with your brain can change drastically—your ears send different signals to the neurons in your auditory cortex, the part of your brain that controls hearing. As a result, your ear may tell your brain that you’re hearing something, even when you’re not.

Research suggests that tinnitus might be the result of the brain trying to regain the ability to hear frequencies that your damaged ears can no longer hear. To compensate, your brain turns up the signals of neurons in neighboring frequencies. Because there are too many neurons processing the same frequencies, they fire more strongly, more frequently and at the same time.

A recently announced clinical trial will test a device that uses nervous system stimuli to rewire parts of the brain, in hopes of significantly reducing or removing tinnitus. The human brain is actually capable of “reconfiguring” itself through a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. The device in the trial is designed to stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the head and neck down to the abdomen and can release chemicals to the brain, essentially telling it to stop creating phantom noises or at least reduce their frequency and volume.

Ready for your implant?

Elias has spent a lot of time researching treatment was shocked to see that there is no medication proven to relieve tinnitus. “People are trying anything and everything. There’s a lot of homeopathic stuff and some people even take stuff that kind of slows down the nervous system, but I’ve heard it just makes you really tired.” He says he’s glad to hear that there are trials in the works but he’s not sure he would go for it at this point. “It’s still manageable for now and it hopefully it will go away, but if it does get worse I can definitely see myself considering treatment like this, even if it meant getting something implanted.”

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