Tinnitus Implant: Looking for the code of silence

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In February 2013 the first Tinnitus Implant was placed at the Maastricht University Medical Centre+ (MUMC+). The implant was received by a patient that is deaf on one side and suffers from severe tinnitus. Aim is to eliminate tinnitus. Prof. dr. Robert Stokroos, ENT surgeon, performed the implantation. “We are looking for the code of silence.”

In The Netherlands approximately two million people suffer from tinnitus. The affliction can have serious consequences, such as people losing their job or seeing their marriage disrupted. At the MUMC+, a lot of research is conducted to better understand tinnitus and to find a cure. One of the possible remedies is a tinnitus implant. The TI gives an electrical pulse that should make the patient experience silence instead of tinnitus.

At the Maastricht University Brains Unlimited Centre preliminary research was conducted. With advanced MRI scanners by Siemens the researchers were able to locate the place in the brains where tinnitus is generated. Stokroos: “What actually happens with tinnitus is that the input of signals fails and nuclei in the brain are disordered. The brain tries to compensate for this with a very sensitive registration of signals, resulting in tinnitus.”

With the TI, Stokroos, audiologist MD Erwin George and nanotechnologist Remo Arts now try to send a signal to the specific nuclei brain involved with tinnitus. Stokroos: “We are looking for the code of silence, a way to enable the patient to experience silence again. If we are able to stimulate the hearing nerve in a way that the brain receives input again, the brain can refrain from overcompensating.”

The TI is an adapted CI by Med-El. It is placed in the cochlea. "In Maastricht we place about 80 CI's per year", says Stokroos. "We know how to do this well, but we have never done it in order to cure tinnitus." It is important to induce the right stimulus at the right pitch, a matter of trial and error with ten patients.

Ever since it has become publicly known that the study is executed, patients have been knocking at Stokroos' door. "People can be desperate", he says. It is his vocation to find a cure. Next to the TI-research Stokroos is also involved in curing tinnitus through deep brain stimulation. Colleagues of Stokroos work on behavourial therapies. "Another approach to the same problem", says Stokroos. "This approach, as well as medication, seems to have positive effects as well. It is very good to investigate different solutions simultaneously." Stokroos concludes by saying: "We think the TI can significantly contribute to solving the problem. There is music in it."

Alinda Wolthuis