New Approach to Tinnitus

Everyone knows the man on the street whose ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ can be heard clearly by everyone who comes into his presence. He’s the mobile counterpart of the man in a car whose 2Pac’s ‘California Love’ serenades both him and the seven cars behind, three cars in front and two cars to the side of him. Although it is known that listening to music at a too high volume induces hearing damage, professor Fan-Gang Zeng offers a newfound healing therapy for the damage in the man with the ipod, the man in his car and the more than 60 million affected Americans.
The hearing damage, known as tinnitus, results in high-pitched ringing due to injury, infection or the repeated bombast of loud music and may occur in one or both ears. Researchers found that applying a low-pitch sound using an MP3 player provides temporary alleviation and suppression of the internal noise that varies in pitch and frequency in the ears of those affected. Previous treatments exist, yet few offer consistent effectiveness.
‘Tinnitus is one of the most common hearing disorders in the world, but very little is understood about why it occurs or how to treat it,’ said Zeng in a UCI press release dated Feb. 14. ‘We are very pleased and surprised by the success of this therapy, and hopefully with further testing it will provide needed relief to the millions who suffer from tinnitus.’
The professor of otolaryngology, biomedical engineering, cognitive sciences and anatomy and neurobiology presented his research findings and his Feb. 13 study at the Middle Winter Research Conference for Otolaryngology in Denver.
Professor Zeng serves as the director of the UCI Speech and Hearing Lab and stumbled across the use of low-pitch sounds to alleviate tinnitus while assessing the severe condition of a research patient’s tinnitus. The use of a cochlear implant in the patient’s injured right ear alleviates the constant mid-ranged pitched sound and high-pitched ringing, with a frequency of 4000 to 8000 hertz, within his ear.
Initially, Zeng sought to treat the patient’s tinnitus with a high-pitched sound, as opposed to a low-pitched sound, but decided against it due to the severity of the patient’s tinnitus. The use of a high-pitched sound to treat tinnitus is known as a method named ‘masking’ and may be used in less severe cases.
Following the unexpected effective results from the use of the low-pitched sound on the patient, researchers developed a low-pitched, pulsing sound that resides as a ‘calming, present tone’ with a frequency of 40 to 100 hertz. The application of the low-pitched sound by an MP3 player stops the high-pitched ringing after about 90 seconds.
Zeng’s delivery of a low-pitched sound worked on his patient who uses a cochlear implant, but has not been tested on patients without the hearing-aid devices. He is currently studying the effect the treatment would produce in patients without cochlear implants, and believes that a properly pitched acoustic sound will have the same effect since a cochlear implant simulates normal hearing processes.
UCI physician Hamid Djalilian, treats hearing disorders and proposes that a custom sound can be developed and downloaded by patients onto their personal MP3 player as means to provide instant relief when needed.
‘The treatment, though, does not represent a cure,’ said Zeng. ‘This low-pitch therapeutic approach is only effective while being applied to the ear, after which the ringing can return. But it underscores the need to customize stimulation for tinnitus suppression and suggests that balanced stimulation, rather than masking, is the brain mechanism underlying this surprising finding.’