A nerve stimulating device could eliminate that pesky ringing for good.

Chronic sufferers of tinnitus, that buzz-killing condition which can arise from overexposure to loud, repetitive beats, will know that there is no straightforward cure for the ailment. While some scientists have suggested that MDMA could reduce the symptoms (seriously), a more significant breakthrough has recently been made by US medical company MicroTransponder, which specialises in “neurostimulation” to treat strokes and chronic pain.

Sounding appropriately like a chill-out room at a ’90s rave, the Serenity System uses a transmitter connected to the vagus nerve in the neck, which connects the brain to many other organs in the body. As New Scientist reports, the idea is that most cases of chronic tinnitus are the result of changes in the signals sent from the ear to neurons in the brain’s auditory cortex. Unlike the state-of-the-art hearing aids sometimes prescribed to tinnitus sufferers, which play specific tones designed to cancel out the ringing, the Serenity System doesn’t mask the noise, but instead retrains the brain to forget it.

To get started, patients put on a pair of headphones and listen to various tones that trigger the tinnitus before being played different frequencies close to the problematic one. At the same time, the implant sends small pulses to the vagus nerve, which trigger the release of chemicals that increase the brain’s ability to reconfigure itself.

It’s not just speculation – the process has already been effective in rats (although we’re not sure what clubs they’ve been going to) and on a small number of humans who took part in a trial this year, where around half of the participants saw an improvement. Four clinical trials of the system are currently taking place at US universities, with a consumer version set to be approved by the middle of next year.

Because the implant is an invasive procedure, it may only be worthwhile for people whose quality of life is really suffering, but it would at least prove that the neurological mechanism that generates tinnitus can be reset. [via RA]



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