For many years our firm has represented clients who have suffered Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI). One of the more nagging and irritating symptoms, so I’m reminded by a recent client, is the intense and constant ringing in the inner ear brought on by tinnitus. And chronic tinnitus is very difficult or impossible to heal.
My client, Mark V, who suffered a trauma to his head in July 2011 tells me that 2 1/2 months later tinnitus:
“is fairly constant. The only time I don’t notice it is when I am concentrating on something else–typically physical and mental activities. When I’m waterskiing, motorcrossing, driving a car, working on a crossword puzzle, reading an interesting book or sudoku, I don’t notice it at all. When my world around me is quiet and peaceful or when I’m reminded about my tinnitus (like in this moment writing about it), I experience it and realize it was always there. The more emotionaly stressed I feel, the quicker and more intense the ear ringing.”
A recent study by UC Berkeley indicates that the way to stop the tinnitus ringing in the ear is not to retrain the ear but to retrain the brain.
This recent work by UC Berkely experts is the most clearheaded documentation to date of what’s actually happening in the brain’s cortex in ways that account for the ongoing genesis of sound.
Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus of otolaryngology at UC San Francisco and inventor of the cochlear implant is also chief scientific officer at Posit Science, which develops software to retrain the brain, primarily to improve learning and memory but more recently to address problems like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and tinnitus.
Merzenich posits that “two million Americans are debilitated by tinnitus; they can’t work, they can’t sleep. It’s life destroying and a substantial cause of suicide.” “These experiments have led us to rethink how we attack the tinnitus by our training strategies.”
As a San Francisco Brain Injury Attorney I find this news to be forthright and positive. I’ve seen how much brain injured clients with tinnitus suffer, especially because they feel helpless against the power that holds them back from calming themselves to promote their own healing. Their obsessions with trying to cure or sooth the ear ringing take over. The suggestion that true healing can be gained through retraining of the brain can give some of these survivors some more hope. Not all tinnitus is from brain injury, so it is unlikely that all tinnitus can be helped by brain retraining; however, this is a good start.
Unfortunately even a sustained loud noise, from machinery or music, as well as some drugs can damage the hair cells in the inner ear that detect sounds. Because each hair cell is tuned to a different frequency, damaged or lost cells can leave a gap in hearing.
Experiments in the past few years have shown that the ringing doesn’t originate in the inner ear, though, but rather in regions of the brain–including the auditory cortex–that receives input from the ear. When there is hearing loss, there are phantom sounds, which results in the ringing sound.
The retraining of the brain cells of tinnitus patients is key, so that their brain cells get new input, which should reduce spontaneous firing. The brain will reorganize when it loses sensory input. The idea is to train the ears to be more sensitive to affected frequencies, thereby remapping auditory regions of the brain that cause tinnitus.
Unfortunately drugs that increase the level of GABA eliminate tinnitus but have serious side effects. Researchers are looking for drugs that can at least alleviate the problem and be proven safe for use by humans.
The research was supported by the American Tinnitus Association and the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Deafness and other Communicative Disorders.
About the author: Claude Wyle is an aggressive advocate for Bay Area head injury survivors. Claude has decades of experience representing those harmed by the wrongful conduct of others, and, as a Bay Area brain injury lawyer, has fought to protect the rights of those with head injuries throughout his legal career.