Nerve implant retrains your brain to stop tinnitus
- 24 July 2014 by Claudia Caruana
- New Scientist
GOT that ringing in your ears? Tinnitus, the debilitating condition that plagued
Beethoven and Darwin, affects roughly 10 per cent of the world’s population,
including 30 million people in the US alone. Now, a device based on vagus nerve
stimulation promises to eliminate the sounds for good by retraining the brain.
At the moment, many chronic sufferers turn to state of the art hearing aids
configured to play specific tones meant to cancel out the tinnitus. But these do not
always work because they just mask the noise.
The new device, developed by MicroTransponder in Dallas, Texas, works in an
entirely different way. The Serenity System uses a transmitter connected to the
vagus nerve in the neck – the vagus nerve connects the brain to many of the
The thinking goes that most cases of chronic tinnitus result from changes in the
signals sent from the ear to neurons in the brain’s auditory cortex. This device is
meant to retrain those neurons to forget the annoying noise.
To use the system, a person wears headphones and listens to computer-generated
sounds. First, they listen to tones that trigger the tinnitus before being played
different frequencies close to the problematic one.
Meanwhile, the implant stimulates the vagus nerve with small pulses. The pulses
trigger the release of chemicals that increase the brain’s ability to reconfigure
itself. The process has already worked in rats (Nature, doi.org/b63kt9) and in a
small human trial this year, where it helped around half of the participants.
“Vagus nerve stimulation takes advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity – the
ability to reconfigure itself,” says Michael Kilgard at the University of Texas at
Dallas, and a consultant to MicroTransponder.
Four clinical trials of the system, funded by the National Institutes of Health, are
taking place at US universities, and Kilgard thinks a consumer version could be
approved by mid-2015.
Fatima Husain at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign cautions that
because the implant is an invasive procedure it will only be a good idea for people
whose lives are extremely affected by the condition. But if the mechanism that
generates tinnitus can be reset, it could work, she says.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Remodel brain to ignore bad
buzzing in the ears”