Page last updated at 00:43 GMT, Friday, 18 December 2009

Early treatment hope for tinnitus

The sounds are described as ringing, buzzing, roaring, hissing or whistling

Research has raised the possibility of successfully treating the ear-ringing disorder tinnitus soon after its onset.

Some forms of the condition are associated with spontaneous nerve activity in the brain.

A team from the University of Western Australia showed this activity is, for a time, dependent on nerve signals generated in the inner ear.

They believe it might be possible to treat tinnitus - for a limited period - by reducing these signals from the ear.

Tinnitus causes an unpleasant ringing, buzzing or whistling sound in one or both ears, or the head.

More than a third of the UK population will suffer from the condition at some point in their lives and about one in 100 will experience serious problems with long-term, established tinnitus.

This finding indicates there may be an early phase of tinnitus development which could be arrested
Professor Don Robertson
University of Western Australia

Tinnitus is often associated with some degree of hearing loss.

The increased nerve activity in the brain associated with the condition is often caused by exposure to loud noise - such as music or machinery.

The researchers, working on animals, found that this increased activity could be reduced back down to normal levels by reducing nerve signals coming from the inner ear.

Cooling the ear

They achieved this in three ways: by removing a part of the inner ear called the cochlea, by cooling it down, and - crucially - by using drugs to block generation of the nervous impulses.

However, their work also suggested that after about six weeks, the increased nerve activity generated in the brain becomes independent of input from the ears.

This suggests that if tinnitus can be treated by dampening down nerve signals from the ear, it must be done swiftly before the condition becomes irreversibly established.

The researchers said further work was needed to find ways to exploit this potential window of opportunity.

'Extremely excited'

Lead researcher Professor Don Robertson said: "This finding indicates there may be an early phase of tinnitus development which could be arrested by temporarily dampening down the firing from the cochlea.

"And although a lot more research needs to be done at this stage, it is a very exciting prospect."

Dr Ralph Holme, director of biomedical research at the charity RNID, which funded the research, said: "Tinnitus affects seven million people in the UK, yet there are no safe or effective ways of alleviating this stressful condition.

"We are extremely excited about the significant progress this research has made into identifying a possible window of opportunity for future treatments."

The research will appear in the journal Neuroscience.

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