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A new understanding of tinnitus and deafness could help reverse both

Investigations of the paradoxical link between tinnitus and hearing loss have revealed a hidden form of deafness, paving the way to possible new treatments

By Clare Wilson

17 April 2024

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Working as a DJ in Liverpool, UK, a decade ago, James Rand would often leave work hearing strange sounds that he knew weren’t real — a high-pitched whine or a low rumble. These symptoms of tinnitus always disappeared by the time he awoke… until, one day in 2017, they didn’t.

A doctor confirmed that the sounds had probably been caused by Rand’s exposure to loud music for hours at a time. There were no treatments, bar ways to help him get used to it. “I knew I was never going to hear silence again,” he says. “It was incredibly depressing.”

Today, though, the prospects for treating tinnitus aren’t so bleak. New research has led to neurostimulation devices that reduce the sounds’ volume. Moreover, several treatments are in development that could even silence tinnitus completely. “For the first time, we’re talking about a possible cure,” says Stéphane Maison at Harvard Medical School.

These insights have also shed light on a common cause of hearing loss. In fact, they suggest that some of the same treatments for tinnitus could also restore hearing in people who have become partially deaf with age. “It has completely changed the way we think about hearing loss,” says Maison.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is one of the most common long-term medical conditions, affecting up to a quarter of older adults. While the whining and rumbling experienced by Rand are common forms, others may hear whistling, humming, clicking or even musical hallucinations. The sounds can be intrusive and distracting, sometimes leading to depression, anxiety…

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