Many people that suffer from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) experience a constant ringing in the ears known as tinnitus. Of course, you don’t need a TBI to experience this extremely unpleasant and constant sound of high-frequency pitches in your ear that don’t seem to go away – just go to any concert without hearing protection. You’ll likely end up with tinnitus for a little while afterwards. That’s why tinnitus has commonly been known throughout the years as “concert ear”. But for individuals who’ve suffered a TBI, tinnitus can sometimes last for years. It can become a regular part of their everyday life. Some estimates put the number of people dealing with persistent tinnitus at 500 million worldwide.
Despite this relatively common side effect of trauma to the head, there’s no permanent solution for those people suffering from chronic tinnitus. Some people resort to using speakers or headphones to help “mask” the sound of their own tinnitus by playing sounds produced by special machines or apps on their phone. However, a new study might help address this problem by identifying the possible cause behind tinnitus: neuro-inflammation in the auditory pathways in your ears.
In this case, “neuro-inflammation” is the response that a person’s brain and central nervous system has when the person is injured. For example, when someone’s hearing system is damaged, inflammation can occur – similar to when someone hurts other parts of their body, like their finger. The same can be true when it comes to brain damage. In the case of ears or brains trying to recover from damage, the body’s primary immune cells (known as “microglia”) get activated. When these cells stay active and don’t turn off – as in the case of tinnitus, where the brain keeps getting signals from the ears even if there’s no sound – these cells also cause proteins to be released which make things even worse. One such protein is “TNF”. Researchers have found TNF to be the protein that triggers tinnitus, at least in lab mice. If the gene that causes the production of TNF is shut off, or repressed with medications, tinnitus disappears, again, at least in lab mice.
In the end, if researchers can find a way to genetically
control the presence of TNF, or, use anti-inflammatory medications to reduce
the presence of TNF, it could provide a way to reduce or eliminate tinnitus.
Let’s hope so. We see too many clients suffering from tinnitus in our line of
work, and there’s often very little that can be done to help them improve
significantly over time.