NIDCD Set to Fund Tinnitus Research
Editor: It's great to see that tinnitus is becoming recognized as a
health issue that needs to be addressed. It affects a lot of people, and
many so severely that it interferes with their daily lives. The National
Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) is funding
innovative research on tinnitus treatment.
Almost everyone has experienced tinnitus-what's commonly called ringing
in the ears-at least once. Usually it goes away. But for some people it
doesn't, and the noise can range from a soft whooshing to a piercing
shriek that makes it impossible to think or concentrate, let alone fall
asleep at night.
The problem with tinnitus, as Richard Tyler, PhD, told an audience of
more than 40 scientific researchers gathered for a workshop sponsored by
the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD),
Bethesda, Md, is that because there is still no cure, people are told they
just have to live with it. "Most of them do," said Tyler, a tinnitus
researcher at the University of Iowa. "But that doesn't mean they like
it." (See a list of the participants and the agenda for the meeting.)
Tyler arrived at this conclusion when his university sent out an alumni
newsletter with a tiny paragraph tucked into its pages about one of his
NIDCD grants. Within 3 months, he had received more than 300 e-mails from
people across the country. "They were all pretty much the same," he said.
"Something like, 'I've had tinnitus for about 10 years and it doesn't
bother me. But if you could fix it, I'd fly out to Iowa City tomorrow.'"
Because there are so many reasons for tinnitus, ranging from hearing
loss to medications, diagnosing the cause or causes is a challenge, says
NIDCD. Figuring out how to help a patient is even more daunting, which is
why NIDCD scientific program directors Roger Miller, PhD, and Gordon
Hughes, MD, decided to bring together researchers from the tinnitus and
neural prosthesis communities for 2 days of brainstorming on the
possibilities for developing devices to treat tinnitus. Fifteen
presentations covered topics in basic science, FDA guidelines for device
development, experimental clinical trials, and the growing numbers of
veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with tinnitus from bomb blast
Although tinnitus may begin in the ear, chronic tinnitus continues in
the brain, says NIDCD. How that happens is still being debated among
researchers. There are many places along the path a hearing signal travels
between the inner ear and the brain where things can go wrong to cause
tinnitus. If we can understand how and where that happens, and why it
causes tinnitus, it might be possible to find places on that path where
some kind of therapeutic intervention could stop tinnitus in its tracks,
according to the agency.
NIDCD said one of the more promising directions involves the use of
electrical or magnetic stimulation on areas of the brain involved in
hearing. Implantable pacemaker devices already exist to reduce the
trembling of Parkinson's disease and the compulsions of
obsessive-compulsive disorder. Similar devices could be used to normalize
the neural circuits involved in tinnitus.
To encourage this kind of research, NIDCD is offering two different
funding opportunities: for the development of new interventions
(PAR-09-056), and for new or enhanced diagnostic, intervention, and
treatment paradigms (PAR-09-057). "There's no question that there's plenty
of room for new thinking and new ideas to help people with disabling
tinnitus," said Roger Miller at the beginning of the meeting. By the end,
researchers were clustered in the hallways, plotting how.