First I'd ever heard of tinnitus was when Who guitarist Pete Townshend announced the ringing in his ears had gotten so bad he might have to hang up his Fender Eric Clapton Stratocaster for good. Then I became a music critic, stood too close to too many stages and speakers for too many years, and would eventually discover what it was like to always hear a high-pitched something even in absolute silence. But the University of Texas-Dallas sends word this morning that two of its researchers -- Dr. Michael Kilgard and Dr. Navzer Engineer, along with UTD-affiliated biotech firm MicroTransponder -- may have stumbled across if not a cure for tinnitus, then perhaps something approaching long-term relief.
The docs' research, funded with a $1.7-million grant from the National Institutes of Health and published this week in Nature and quickly making the rounds both here and abroad, suggests that tinnitus is reversible after all -- that the perpetual ringing in the ears can be turned down, if not switched off altogether. Long story short: The docs found that if they exposed rats to sound while at the same time electrically stimulating the vagus nerve (which is apparently also called the "cranial nerve X," which just triggered the rare Band Name and Album Title Alert), they could eliminate the ringing in the ears. (Though how one finds a rat with tinnitus ...)
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Says Engineer in the UTD release, "This minimally invasive method of generating neural plasticity allows us to precisely manipulate brain circuits, which cannot be achieved with drugs. Pairing sounds with VNS provides that precision by rewiring damaged circuits and reversing the abnormal activity that generates the phantom sound." Clinical trials are scheduled to begin on humans in the next few months. Which reminds me: Kids, turn down the iPod. And get yourself a case of earplugs.