Tinnitus, a relentless ringing or buzzing in the ears, can be a surprisingly debilitating ailment and prove extremely difficult to remedy. In a new bid to tackle this exhausting experience, researchers in Ireland have developed a device that uses headphones and tongue zapping to alleviate the mind-numbing buzzing of tinnitus. It’s not a cure, but their new clinical trial shows the method could silence symptoms of tinnitus for up to a year.
The non-invasive device, called Lenire, delivers sound to the ears through Bluetooth headphones while stimulating the tongue with a small mouthpiece that emits low amounts of electricity. It uses a technique, known as a bimodal neuromodulation treatment, that interferes with the ongoing brain activity associated with tinnitus and retrains the brain to become less aware of the ringing sensation, effectively distracting the brain using a gentle electrical shock. The tongue is chosen to stimulate simply because the trigeminal nerve in the tongue is easily stimulated and easy to access.
As reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers from the Ireland-based Neuromod Devices tested out the technology with 326 people in a clinical study between 2016 and 2019. The participants were recommended to use the device by themselves at home for an hour each day, completing at the very least 36 hours of treatment over the 12 weeks in total.
The results showed that 86 percent of participants who completed the trial reported an improvement in tinnitus symptoms when tested after 12 weeks of treatment. Even 12 months after the treatment, 66 percent of participants reported lessening of tinnitus symptoms.
“This study tracked the post-treatment therapeutic effects for 12 months, which is a first for the tinnitus field in evaluating the long-term outcomes of a medical device approach. The outcomes are very exciting and I look forward to continuing our work to develop a bimodal neuromodulation treatment to help as many tinnitus sufferers as possible," Hubert Lim, chief scientific officer of Neuromod, said in a press release.
Other clinical trials have previously looked at similar tongue-zapping techniques to treat tinnitus, but this new research is the largest and longest followed-up clinical trial ever looking at a treatment for tinnitus.
Around 10 to 15 percent of the population is affected by tinnitus. There is no single condition that causes tinnitus, but it’s typically associated with exposure to loud noise, ear injuries, earwax blockages, or hearing loss in old age. For most people, especially in regards to exposure to loud noises, the ringing-in-the-ears sensation will quickly fade. However, for others, it can last for a desperately long time and can have a profound effect on peoples’ wellbeing. A handful of studies have linked suffering from tinnitus to an increased risk of suicide, anxiety, and depression, although the nature of this link is not totally clear.
While the development of treatments for the condition has proved surprisingly sluggish, this new clinical trial shows that hope is on the horizon for the millions of people suffering from this condition. The device is currently available in clinics in Ireland, Germany, and Belgium, and Neuromod is seeking FDA approval to make the technology available in the US as soon as possible.