Stop the Ringing!

In your ears! For good!

I know the feeling.

I blame all the concerts my husband dragged me to when we were dating. Especially those four My Morning Jacket shows. Those guys are loud.

Now I can’t get the dang ringing in my ears to stop. Especially right now while I’m thinking about it. Gah.

Science calls the condition tinnitus, the constant buzzing or ringing some people hear in their ears which is caused by hearing loss and the result of damage to the tiny hairs in your ears. See, each hair is there to pick up certain sound frequencies. When hairs are lost or damaged—the typical culprits are loud, sustained noise—you’re left with gaps in your hearing, meaning you’re no longer able to hear things at certain frequencies. So tinnitus is more than just annoying; it’s actually symptomatic of a more serious problem.

The good news: Research over the past few years has revealed that the ringing actually originates in the brain, not the ears. A team from UC Berkeley took that notion to the next level recently, developing a method for retraining the brain to make the ringing stop.

Using rats who were induced to lose some of their hearing, the researchers learned that when auditory neurons lose sensory input from the ears they “become more excitable and fire spontaneously,” according to this article. What you’re hearing, in other words, are phantom sounds, the result of neurons that aren’t receiving any auditory data—so they make up their own.

Since these little guys want to be put to work, one treatment idea is to retrain these brain cells to take in new sensory input, so that they stop firing spontaneously. In the past, researchers thought it’d be best to shut out the auditory neurons all together; this treatment aims to refocus them elsewhere.

It’s the old “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” trick. And, at least in this case, it seems to be working.