Twelve million Americans seek medical relief from the perpetual whooshing, ringing or roaring noise of tinnitus, but there is currently no cure. Treatments such as electrical shocks, pills and sound therapy have had only limited success. But as researchers learn more about the causes of tinnitus—and its devastating emotional toll—they are discovering better options.
Researchers at Neuromonics in Bethlehem, Pa., have developed a new iPod-like device called Neuromonics Oasis, which tackles each tinnitus sufferer’s unique combination of emotional and auditory symptoms. The portable music player delivers New Age and baroque tunes, which serve a double purpose: the music provides psychological relief from the agony of hearing phantom noise, and it addresses the complex neurological roots of tinnitus.
When ear damage or normal aging mutes certain sound frequencies, some experts believe the brain becomes hyperactive as it strains to hear those missing data. “The brain wants a signal,” explains neuroscientist Richard Salvi of the University at Buffalo, “so it starts turning up the volume.” The Neuromonics system boosts the intensity of musical frequencies at which a user has poor hearing, fulfilling the brain’s need for input. The device also attempts to train users to tune out their tinnitus—like tuning out the humming fridge—by slowly lowering the music’s volume over several months of treatment. As the music transitions from continuously covering up the “brain static” to intermittently obscuring and revealing it with sonic peaks and troughs, the brain gradually habituates by ignoring the tinnitus as well as the repetitive music accompanying it.
The Neuromonics device has been successful in more than 2,000 tinnitus patients so far, but it is not without critics. Neurologist Jack Wazen, who is conducting clinical trials with the device at the Silverstein Institute in Sarasota, Fla., noted that only half his tinnitus patients can afford its $3,500 to $6,000 price tag. And as with other treatments, Neuromonics is not for everyone. Marc Fagelson, an audiologist at East Tennessee State University, says, “It doesn’t work for musicians, because they don’t like the way it sounds. But for most people who weren’t weaned on the Sex Pistols, it is a well-designed package.”