Tinnitus – New Method Of Detection

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Tinnitus has been described as a chronic ringing in the head or ears that can be as quiet as a whisper or as loud as a jack hammer. Despite it’s unpleasant and disruptive nature on the lives of sufferers, physicians can rarely pin point the source of tinnitus.

The American Tinnitus Association estimates that more than 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree; about 12 million have severe enough tinnitus to seek medical attention; and about 2 million patients are so seriously debilitated that they cannot function on a day to day basis.

The exact physiological causes of tinnitus are not known. However, research has indicated that there are several likely sources, including exposure to loud noise, wax build up in the ear, or sinus infections, head and neck trauma and certain disorders, such as fibromyalgia can have tinnitus as a symptom.

There is no known cure for tinnitus but there are options for coping with the condition, including hearing aids, cognitive behavioural therapy and in some cases, complimentary therapy, such as meditation, hypnosis and acupuncture, can also be recommended.

A recent study, carried out at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit has found that a non invasive imaging technique can actually aid in the diagnosis of tinnitus and may detect a reduction in symptoms after different treatments, thereby offering hope to the many sufferers.

This imaging technique, magnetoencephalography (MEG), can determine the site of perception of tinnitus in the brain, which could in turn allow physicians to target the area with electrical or chemical therapies to lessen the symptoms. Prior to this technique, physicians had no way of pin pointing a specific location of tinnitus in the brain.

Co-Author of the study, Susan M Bowyer, Ph.D. Bioscientific Senior Researcher at the Department of Neurology at Henry Ford Hospital explains that; “Using MEG, we can actually see the areas in the brain that are generating the patients tinnitus, which allows us to target it and treat it”. Imaging techniques currently used to study tinnitus in the brain include PET and MRI scans, which provide a general location but are not successful at determining the specific site in the brain that is generating tinnitus symptoms.

MEG, by comparison, measures the very small magnetic fields generated by intracellular electrical currents in the neurons of the brain. Currently, there are only 20 sites in the US, including the Henry Ford Hospital, which are equipped with an MEG scanner. The study has established MEG as a clinical tool for localising the probable source of tinnitus in patient’s brains. It also has the potential to assist with the development of future interventional strategies to alleviate tinnitus.

MEG scanners are currently available in the UK, at a limited number of locations, including the Liverpool University Hospital and the Leopold Muller Functional Imaging Laboratory in 12 Queens Square, London. However, they do not appear to be currently used in the diagnosis of tinnitus, but following the results of the study carried out at the Henry Ford Hospital, it is likely to be something that we will see in the future.

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