Millions of Americans suffer from a chronic ringing in the ears known as tinnitus. And for more than 10 million of them, the experience of hearing that sound is severe enough to seek medical attention.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas are hopeful a new device that stimulates the vagus nerve in the neck could help bring silence to tinnitus sufferers.
Every night before he goes to sleep, and every morning when he wakes up, Terry Price hears a high-pitched sound.
“If you can imagine a really high irritating whistle,” he says, “I have two of those going all the time and the only relief I have is when I’m asleep.”
The ringing “ruined what I loved”
Price is the music director at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas. He’s been conducting choirs for decades – and he first noticed a ringing in his right ear in 1983 after a recording session. Back then, it was only a minor annoyance, Price says. A few years ago, it turned into a nightmare.
“It just kept getting louder and louder. And then I started experiencing distortion in the music,” Price said. “One single high note would transform into a cluster of screeches. It really ruined what I loved.”
Musicians and veterans are two groups of people who often suffer from tinnitus. That’s because two common causes are exposure to loud noises and head or neck trauma. According to the Department of Defense, in the past four years, the number of veterans on disability compensation for tinnitus has nearly doubled to an estimated 1.5 million.
And there is no cure — only treatments to alleviate the ringing.
Today, there is no standard treatment for tinnitus. Dr. Sven Vanneste, an associate professor who works at UT-Dallas’ Callier Center for Communication Disorders, explains some people are helped with hearing aids, others with sound therapy, some with anti-depressants – even meditation. But none of these treatments are treating the tinnitus, he said. They’re attacking the symptoms.
“For a long time, people thought tinnitus was really an ear problem, but it’s really a brain problem,” Vanneste said.
Researchers like Vanneste say the brain is trying to replace the frequencies no longer heard — so that high-pitch noise is like a ghost of hearing lost. To change tinnitus, he says, you have to change the activity in the brain and stop the overcompensation. One way to do this is through stimulating a nerve in the neck called the vagus nerve.
Stimulating a nerve to tune out tinnitus
Vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS, is an approved therapy for treatment of epilepsy and treatment-resistant depression. More recently, it’s being explored as a potential tinnitus treatment.
The approach developed at UT-Dallas combines audible tones with brief pulses of electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve in the neck.
Here’s how it works: a pacemaker-like device is implanted into the chest. It’s connected to a lead and electrode linked to the vagal nerve in the neck. For a period of a few hours, every 15 to 30 seconds, the device sends tiny jolts of electricity at the same time as a tone – reinforcing the tones you want the brain to respond to, and not the others.
The first clinical trial, done in Belgium, was small – it included only 10 participants. Half of those noticed a great improvement in their tinnitus. Still, the results were positive enough to warrant a larger follow-up trial across four different centers across the U.S. UT-Dallas, along with three other institutions, are recruiting for the trial.
You can learn more about the clinical trial here.
The Callier Center is also holding a series of talks, Tinnitus 101, starting in March.