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Tinnitus: What causes this baffling disorder?

January 12, 2011|By Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times

Tinnitus -- that persistent ringing sound heard by about 40 million Americans -- may be caused by a pairing of brain changes, researchers reported Wednesday. But another study in animals suggests a way to address the mix-up in the brain to make tinnitus go away.

In the first study, published in the journal Neuron, researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center used brain scans to examine 22 people, half of whom had tinnitus. What they found suggests that tinnitus is caused by the brain's desire to produce sounds to replace what is missing through age-related hearing loss. But when another part of the brain fails to stop these unwanted sounds from reaching the auditory processing center of the brain, tinnitus results.

The other study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature, tested a treatment for tinnitus that is based on reversing the changes in the brain that cause tinnitus. Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas exposed rats with tinnitus to sounds while stimulating the vagus nerve, which sends pulses of electrical energy to the brain. The treatment eliminated the signs of tinnitus in the rats for a period of weeks.

More research is needed before treatments become available to patients. But the studies show progress in understanding the disorder and needed steps toward a solution.

Related: Do claims for tinnitus supplements ring true?

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