By Larry Greenemeier
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Tinnitus, a condition that causes people to hear sounds such as ringing in the ears even when all is quiet, afflicts at least 10 percent of American adults. Although there’s nothing doctors can do to alleviate this discomfort permanently, new approaches to treating the problem are in the works. One of the latest is a sound-therapy device designed to produce unique tones that distract the wearer’s brain from more irritating sounds. The SoundCure Serenade Tinnitus Treatment System has received a hearty endorsement from the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), which invested $138,000 in the technology’s development and this weekend is hosting a fundraiser in Portland, Ore., to raise additional money for tinnitus research.
SoundCure, a Silicon Valley startup, made the Serenade system available this past March. It is a handheld device with headphones that produces low-frequency modulated sounds the company claims provide more relief than the standard treatment—unmodulated tones or high-pitch white noise. The tones are customized for each patient based on that person’s specific level of tinnitus, although the reprieve is temporary, experienced only when the Serenade is in use.
Reports of tinnitus are rising because of widespread use of personal entertainment and communication devices, particularly in children, according to researchers at the University of California at Irvine’s Hearing Research Center, where Serenade was first developed. In a paper published online in April by the Journal of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology, the researchers, who describe tinnitus as a “brain disorder,” said their device was most effective when the volume was set at a level just softer than the sounds produced by tinnitus (pdf). Tinnitus is also the most common disability among Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Other approaches are attempting to provide more permanent relief. With help from the U.S. Department of Defense, Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass., is fleshing out a concept for a small delivery device inserted near the membrane-covered window—no more than three millimeters in diameter—separating the middle ear from the inner ear. Once at the membrane the device (essentially a polymer capsule, although Draper is not developing any of medicines that might be placed inside) would release a drug into the cochlea, the tubular organ residing in the inner ear that enables us to hear. The plan is to embed wireless communications into the capsule so that a patient or doctor can control the dosage. After the capsule finishes delivering its supply of drugs, it would dissolve.
Portland’s 2012 Jack Vernon Walk to Silence Tinnitus is being held June 16 with ATA contributing twice the amount of each donation of $25 or more to tinnitus research.