A huge number of people potentially could benefit from technology to reprogram the auditory network, says Jennifer Born, public affairs director for the American Tinnitus Association.
With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, "we started seeing a really young population of men and women who were experiencing tinnitus," she says, in part triggered by blasts from improvised explosive devices. Veterans receive upward of $1 billion a year in compensation for the condition, making it the most common service-related disability, she adds.
While commercially available brain-reprogramming technology may be years off, she says, "certainly it's more hope than we've had for a really long time."
Calming the mind
Meanwhile, a federally funded study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, aims to see whether an eight-week course of "mindfulness meditation" will reduce intrusive tinnitus symptoms for people who have been driven to seek treatment.
Mindfulness practitioners typically learn to acknowledge an annoying experience such as tinnitus while letting go of the accompanying mental commentary that fuels anxiety and depression. In theory, at least, that would allow the perception of tinnitus to fade into the background.
The randomized, controlled trial will follow up with participants over the course of a year to see whether the benefits, if any, are durable.
Michael Haederle is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in People, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.