Tinnitus research at Wayne State University may eventually help the more than 250 million people across the globe that suffer from this debilitating “side effect” of hearing loss. Since the mechanisms involved in tinnitus are poorly understood, the treatments for tinnitus focus more on helping sufferers learn to live with and cope with the symptoms rather than actually solving the problem.
A number of research teams worldwide, however, are working on real treatments for tinnitus.
One team, located at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, recently received a grant of $330,000 from the National Science Foundation to develop a 3-D neural probe. Dr. Yong Xu, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and Dr. Jinsheng Zhang, associate professor and associate research director of otolaryngology, are trying to develop an implantable device that will suppress the whistling, ringing, buzzing and screeching that so many people hear 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
As knowledge in the fields of neurosurgery and neuroscience continues to expand, scientists seek new tools that will let them understand more about how the human nervous system works at the cellular level. A number of neural probes have contributed significant information to how the nervous system works and to therapies for various neurological disorders other than tinnitus.
Because neural probes are so successful at providing new information about the nervous system, doctors and researchers continue to demand advanced technology—particularly neural probes—that will help them continue to push into this medical frontier.
Doctors Xu and Zhang say that they’re trying to develop a probe that will combine electrical and chemical interfaces, which will lead to a more effective means of studying neurotransmitters and administering medications. This, in turn, will allow researchers to study and monitor neurons—nerve cells—more efficiently and in deeper parts of the brain. If the Wayne State University team is successful, the new probe could open the door to research that will lead to new therapies not only for tinnitus, but for other neurological disorders as well, including refractory paralysis, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and blindness.
Despite all the other potential applications for the implantable neural probe they are developing, Doctors Xu and Zhang will target tinnitus suppression. This use alone could improve the quality of life for more than 50 million Americans, of whom approximately three to four million people are debilitated by tinnitus.
One reason Doctors Zhang and Xu are focusing on tinnitus rather than some of the other neurological disorders this probe may help with that is there is no reliable treatment for tinnitus at this time. Medication and other therapies can improve how patients cope with their condition, but these therapies take a long time and a lot of effort by patients, and are not universally effective.
However, recent studies have shown that direct electrical neurological simulation of the auditory cortex may be more effective and longer lasting than other therapies that currently are used with tinnitus patients. This means that the probe the Wayne State University team is working on could potentially get to the heart of the tinnitus problem for millions of patients, both in the United States and worldwide.