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Eric D. Young — Tinnitus

Are you one of the 50 million Americans who hears phantom sounds – ringing, hissing, static, crickets, screeching, whooshing, roaring, pulsing, ocean waves, buzzing, dial tones or even music?

If so, welcome to the tinnitus club.

Tinnitus is the perception of sound in the ears or head when no external source is present. Only the person with tinnitus hears it. For many Americans, the sounds are intermittent or temporary. Others hear them 24 hours a day. Twelve million seek medical attention. Another two million patients find the condition so disconcerting they can't function normally day to day.

Of particular concern is a type of tinnitus that develops after prolonged, constant exposure to loud noises, such as heavy equipment, chain saws, firearms or amplified music played at high volume for long periods. (Teenagers and boomers take notice.)

Despite the widespread discomfort and disruption tinnitus causes, little research has been done to develop better treatments and better understanding of the causes and progress of the disorder. A major barrier to such research has been the absence of a reliable test that could tell researchers when a lab animal develops tinnitus.

Now, with the help of a $550,000 ARRA grant from the NIH, researchers Eric D. Young, a Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Bradford J. May, a Professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, both at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, believe they have a way to address that barrier.

Working on tinnitus for years, they developed the hypothesis that tinnitus is caused by disorder and spontaneous activity in a person's auditory neurons after an acoustic trauma or loud sounds, Young says.

To test the hypothesis, Drs. Young and May used the ARRA funds to buy specialized equipment that records the activity of specialized nerve cells in lab animals while they are awake. The investigators also were able to hire two more researchers with the ARRA funds. The equipment they purchased has been around for some time, but not often available or used to record neuronal activity after repeated sound disturbances. In this way, they hope to catch the neural origins of tinnitus in the act.

Drs. Young and May plan to expose the animals to prolonged, loud sounds. Then they will stop the noise. If the animals have tinnitus, their auditory nerve cells won't respond to stoppage, or gap, in the volume of noise. The researchers are looking especially for spontaneous bursts of abnormal electrical activity in these neurons.

"What's interesting and important is that until recently," Dr. Young says, "we didn't have the technical tools to do this. But in the last few years, all of the technology has come together for us.

"And once we know what the neural activity of tinnitus is, we can attack this problem directly.

"Finding a cure has been hard because we didn't know what we were going after," Dr. Young notes. Now, thanks to the ARRA Challenge Grant, "We hope to identify the source of tinnitus and then design drugs to alleviate or cure it."

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