Researchers made a breakthrough that could help reduce the constant ringing or buzzing in the ears of those suffering from tinnitus. About 15 percent of people suffer from tinnitus, which is hard to understand and harder to treat. Researchers have shown that shocking the tongue combined with a carefully designed sound program can reduce the disorder’s symptoms during treatment and for up to one year later.
Neurobiologist Christopher Cederroth, who wasn’t involved with the study, says that this is “really important” work. The study joins other research investigating “bimodal” stimulation using sound along with some sort of gentle electric shock to help the brain control misbehaving neurons. The role the tongue plays in tinnitus was discovered by accident by a biomedical engineer at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, named Hubert Lim.
He was experimenting with using a technique known as deep brain stimulation to restore hearing. He made the discovery while inserting a rod the size of a pencil covered in electrodes directly into the brains of five different patients. It’s common in such procedures for the electrodes to land slightly outside of the target zone. When the electrodes were fired up in one patient who had an electrode outside of the target zone, the patient said their tinnitus was gone.
Additional testing with guinea pigs was able to show the best parts of the body to stimulate to stop tinnitus. Eventually, testing was conducted on humans, and in the experiment, 326 people with tinnitus sat for up to an hour at a time with a small plastic paddle on their tongue. The battle had tiny electrodes to deliver electrical current intended to excite the brain broadly.
Lim says that the stimulation feels a bit like pop rocks candy fizzing in the mouth. The subjects also wore headphones delivering a more targeted treatment to the auditory system of the brain. The participants heard a rapidly changing series of pure tones at different frequencies against background noise that sounds similar to electronic music. During 12 weeks of treatment, tinnitus symptoms improved in the test group dramatically, with more than 80 percent seeing an improvement.