Tinnitus — a ringing or buzzing in the ears with no obvious source — can range from annoying to debilitating. Even worse, there are no generally effective treatments. A new study, however, may point the way both to a cause and, possibly, a cure for tinnitus.

Researchers found that tinnitus can be reduced by "jamming" electrical activity in the brain, using a technique called focused magnetic stimulation. The results confirm the theory that some of the phantom sounds are generated by abnormal activity within the brain itself and may be unrelated to hearing itself.

Interestingly, although tinnitus often accompanies ear problems such as infection, blast injury or Meniere's disease, it can effect the profoundly deaf.

TheDoctor's gerontology expert, Dr. John Morley, Dammert Professor of Gerontology at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine and Director of the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center at the St. Louis V.A. Medical Center, called "tinnitus a devastating condition for many of the persons suffering from it, one that greatly interferes with quality of life." He added that this study 'offers exciting new hope for sufferers of this debilitating condition." The study was published in the December 2002 issue of the Annals of Neurology.

Many people experience tinnitus at some point in their lives. For most of them it is a temporary condition, often coming and going with a temporary ear problem.

However, for more than forty million Americans — especially the elderly and the hearing impaired — tinnitus remains an ongoing problem. In a significant percentage of this group, tinnitus reaches the point of becoming a disability. Doctors have had few weapons to fight this kind of severe tinnitus.

"Recently, neuroscientists have brought forward a new concept which postulates similarities between tinnitus and chronic pain," said Christian Gerloff, M.D., of the University of Tuebingen in Germany, senior author of the new study. "According to this concept, sounds that only the patient can detect might be some sort of 'phantom' auditory perception similar to phantom pain."

This means that the brain itself is creating the illusion of sound in the absence of any actual acoustic stimuli.

In their study, Gerloff and his colleagues used focused magnetic stimulation to temporarily interfere with the activity of specific brain regions in patients with chronic tinnitus. They found that when they stimulated a region called the left temporoparietal cortex, which contains areas known to be associated with hearing, tinnitus was temporarily reduced in most of the patients.

"Knowing that these brain areas are functionally relevant for tinnitus," said Gerloff, "makes them a primary target for modern therapeutic approaches based on brain stimulation methods."

Reviewed by: John E. Morley, M.D..