November 21st, 2014
Anyone that has ever been to a long, loud concert or a club with an appropriately large sound system has no doubt experienced that constant, high, tinny sound reverberating inside the ear drums. However, people who have been exposed to loud enough noise for a long enough time might have had the misfortune of contracting tinnitus, a condition in which the sufferer hears a constant or intermittent noise coming from inside their ears.
The first big breakthrough for sufferers of tinnitus was the medical world first realizing it was an actual condition. Anecdotes from earlier centuries claim that people with tinnitus were originally thought to be possessed by demons and spirits, and generally deemed as crazy. Centuries later, many doctors still blamed tinnitus on the patient’s mental state, convinced that the constant ringing sound was a figment of the patient’s imagination. Modern medicine and science has recognized tinnitus as a condition, but have yet to come up with a comprehensive method for treatment.
The constant ringing noise is caused by damaged nerves inside the ear, who begin sending a continuous signal of sound to other nerves and brain sensors. Sometimes the damage causes the nerve to send out a response signal to a sound that is not actually being transmitted to the ear. This constant looping between the nerves and brain sensors is the root of the constant ringing or whooshing sound that tinnitus patients report.
The damage is caused by sounds exceeding the range of frequencies previously established by the brain and inner ear nerves. Once the eardrum grows accustomed to hearing sounds within a certain decibal and frequency range, sounds outside that ordained limit can upset those nerves to varying degrees.
Dr. Winfried Schlee, a German neuroscientist, is at the forefront of tinnitus research. Schlee and his team have recognized that tinnitus is a problem equally intertwined with the brain as much as the ears and auditory system. Employing a technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG), Schlee studies the tiny electromagnetic fields that are created when brain neurons send and receive messages. By studying changes and inconsistencies within these electromagnetic fields, Schlee and his colleagues hope to get closer to a cure for tinnitus.
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