Cynthia Wisehart on Tinnitus

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As we went to press, there was some science news about tinnitus. Very abstract-seeming, mouse-related stuff so don’t get excited. The discovery of new neurons in the auditory system that may lead to treatment of tinnitus someday. Here’s the science.

Nerve cells in the cochlea are responsible for translating sound waves into electrical signals for the brain. Apparently, these cells traditionally fall into two categories--type 1 and type 2 neurons, with the former handling most of the auditory information.

The new study has identified actually four types of neurons in the peripheral auditory system. Type 2 remains unchanged, but type 1, according to the team, actually comprises three different kinds of cells.

“We now know that there are three different routes into the central auditory system, instead of just one,” says François Lallemend, lead researcher on the study is quoted in New Atlas.

And this is where it gets interesting for me: These newly differentiated neurons appear to be involved in decoding the volume of what we’re hearing. They may be responsible for the “cocktail party effect,” where the brain is able to filter out loud background noise to focus on the voice of a friend. The idea of these “three routes” in the audio system suggests the possibility that attention and sensitivity (or oversensitivity) may cause different routes/neurons to be prioritized (or over prioritized). Like tinnitus is part of a channel mix gone wrong.

This for me was a lightbulb and maybe a partial explanation about the tinnitus treatment that worked for me, and which I will share with no guarantees. I’m a little afraid to mention it in case the voodoo magic stops working. But as my gift to any fellow sufferers I will overcome my superstition on the slim chance that somebody might be helped.

For me what helped was using specific tones and frequencies to briefly overwhelm the tinnitus. It sounds counterintuitive, but when I pushed these sounds into my ear for several seconds, when I took them away, I experienced a very brief moment of silence. It was as if my brain was temporarily confused or oversaturated by the frequencies and forgot about the tinnitus (that is not science btw). Over time, I was able to create the effect pretty reliably. Over time, the gaps got longer, and little by little the intensity of the tinnitus subsided to a more soft, friendly hiss. I can still ratchet it up with chocolate, black tea, no sleep, etc. But I can also push it back down— just enough--with this tone technique. I looked it up and it is actually a thing: you can apparently pay money to work with an auditory therapist to help find the frequencies that can be used to train your brain—to push the tinnitus down in the mix.

As it happened, before I knew anything, I simply stumbled upon this idea by fooling around with the White Noise app on my phone. Alternating between pink and purple noise worked for me. My tinnitus is not gone but with the combination of this “training” and of course time and acceptance, it is much less distressing. When I feel really pushed by it, I can pick up my phone, open an app, and give myself a few moments of silence just to remember how that sounds. That little breath of liberation is strangely comforting. And maybe it is science after all. 

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