Understanding tinnitus

Hearing loss, more specifically damage to the inner ear, can lead to tinnitus

The research funded by the BTA has previously been undertaken by Dr Roland Schaette, the BTA’s Senior Research Fellow, at the UCL Ear Institute, who has tinnitus himself. This work has resulted in huge steps forward in the understanding of tinnitus

We now know that:

  • Tinnitus is associated with changes in the response properties of nerve cells in the first stages of the auditory system, i.e. at the sub-cortical level, and the brain reacts in an abnormal way sending signals from the auditory nerve, thus generating the impression of sound from silence
  • Tinnitus patients with apparently normal hearing do in fact have ‘hidden hearing loss’, manifesting itself as a reduced signal in the auditory nerve even though the hearing thresholds are normal. The brain compensates for this reduced input and hearing loss at the first processing stages of the auditory pathway
  • Hearing loss, more specifically damage to the inner ear, can lead to tinnitus
  • There is no single treatment yet for all cases of tinnitus, and the effects of hearing aids and sound treatments are often limited.

Furthermore, Schaette and colleagues also demonstrated that the illusion of sound can also be induced when hearing loss is simulated for several days with an earplug. These findings can be explained by a computer model of tinnitus development, which shows that an attempt of the brain to compensate for hearing loss can explain hyper-excitability and tinnitus.

Roland’s current contract is due to come to an end in October but he has put into place a plan for the next two years and designed the investigations he hopes to start, if the funding target is reached. The goal of the research programme is to get a significant step closer to an effective tinnitus treatment.

Continuing this vital research would enable Roland and his team to:

  • Investigate how tinnitus is triggered and how it manifests itself in the brain in order to back up how a specific mechanism gives rise to the aberrant nerve cell activity that underlies the tinnitus sensation
  • Test the effects of new chemical compounds upon tinnitus, with the ultimate aim of the development of a tinnitus pill
  • Research different levels of tinnitus and develop and test treatment approaches
  • Develop a computer simulation showing why tinnitus does not always correlate with hearing loss, and why tinnitus may sound different in each individual.

Researchers at the Ear Institute will continue set out to tease apart the details of the mechanisms that give rise to tinnitus, studying tinnitus in humans, animals, and computer models. The plan is to investigate how tinnitus changes information processing in the auditory brain, to test different ways of influencing the response properties of the nerve cells involved in the generation of tinnitus, and to develop and test pharmaceuticals that have the potential to reverse the pathological changes, with the ultimate goal of developing a pill for tinnitus.

The research will use a combined approach that incorporates animal models of tinnitus, computer models of tinnitus generation, investigations in tinnitus patients, and clinical studies.

If you have any questions about hearing loss contact Hidden Hearing.

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