What is the key to treating the bothersome buzzing that affects over 500 million people worldwide? Though Tinnitus can be irreversible in many cases, a pioneering study published in PLOS Biology is exploring new ways that inflammation of the brain mediates tinnitus in mice with noise-induced hearing loss, and how reducing that inflammation may help reduce the ringing in humans. Mice? Brain swelling? Tinnitus? This may sound like science fiction, but Shaowen Bao, PhD, and the University of Arizona have cemented this new research in facts, linking neuroinflammation and tinnitus in ways that were previously unknown, giving new avenues to treat this worldwide epidemic.
Tinnitus is the temporary or permanent perception of ringing in the ears caused by damage to the sensory hair cells of the cochlea, often caused by prolonged exposure to harmful volumes. This condition is generally an underlying condition of a different diagnosis such as ear damage or age-related hearing loss and affects 15-20% of the world’s population. That’s a lot of ringing! Though tinnitus is rarely a sign of a more serious condition, serious problems can develop alongside tinnitus, such as depression, anxiety, or social isolation due to frustration caused by the ringing. Unfortunately, there is no cure to magically reverse the damage caused to your sensory cells, but there are methods to reduce or cope with the noise, such as hearing aids or mental health treatment.
Bao and his team of colleagues at the University of Arizona had found that noise-induced hearing loss was synonymous with increased levels of pro-inflammatory molecules called “cytokines” and the “activation of non-neuronal cells” called microglia in the primary cortex. Experiments on mice with noise-induced hearing loss during Bao’s study had also concluded that a cell-signaling molecule called Tumor Necrosis Factor Alpha also resulted in neuroinflammation, tinnitus, and synaptic imbalance. With pharmacological blockages of TNFA and microglia in the form of medication, the study had found prevention of tinnitus in mice with noise-induced hearing loss. Bao’s team had discovered something groundbreaking, concluding that neuroinflammation may be an effective target in treating tinnitus and other hearing-related disorders.
As of right now, Bao’s study is inconclusive on the possibilities for humans. “It is too early to generalize these findings from rodent models to human tinnitus, or from noise-induced tinnitus to the tinnitus of other etiologies,” Bao stated, while also offering a promising future for his research. “But we can begin to consider neuroinflammation as a potential risk factor for tinnitus.”
With Bao’s and the University of Arizona’s discovery, the future possibilities for treating tinnitus and it’s coinciding conditions are sure to improve, giving doctors a new target to treating a once thought untreatable problem. Though you should seek advice and treatment from your audiologist right away if your tinnitus becomes a serious problem, Bao’s research may have unlocked the key for future patients, all starting with a mouse.