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Americans afflicted with ‘phantom noise’ seek relief from ringing in their ears

November 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Among combat veterans who've suffered powerful explosions, tinnitus -- or ringing in the ears -- remains a daily battle. But they're not alone. Fifty million Americans also suffer from the "auditory phantom." Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on the science behind the nagging noise and the search for a cure.

GWEN IFILL: Now: the burden of living with a never-ending noise, a condition tone as tinnitus, also pronounced tinnitus, and what science is trying to do to make it easier to live with.

We have a report from the NewsHour’s science correspondent, Miles O’Brien.

A warning for viewers with tinnitus: There are a couple of moments in this story where listening to it may cause or worsen ringing in your ears.

JAROM VAHAI, suffers from tinnitus: We’re going to Bauer’s IT. They’re a green bus transportation company.

MILES O’BRIEN: Like any Marine sergeant worth his stripes, Jarom Vahai is always looking out for his brothers in arms.

JAROM VAHAI: And I have been bringing veterans to them with their resumes and setting them up on interviews.

MILES O’BRIEN: These days, he is on patrol near his home in San Francisco, his objective, jobs for unemployed veterans.

JAROM VAHAI: I treated it just like it was a mission, just like it was something that I was targeting, and I attacked.


MILES O’BRIEN: But Jarom has found one hill he cannot conquer: the incessant ringing in his ears. It’s called tinnitus — or tinnitus.

For him, it began with a scene like this in Iraq. On five separate occasions, he came dangerously close to powerful explosions that left his ears ringing.

JAROM VAHAI: And it would last maybe a day, sometimes three days, and then it would go away. And then, one day, it just started and never stopped. It’s just a high pitch, constant, kind of like that test sound.

MILES O’BRIEN: The Veterans Administration says tinnitus is the number one medical complaint among combat veterans, but it is not just vets who are afflicted. Fifty million Americans suffer the symptoms at some point in their lives, and 12 million of them seek medical help because they hear noises like this, or this, or this, all the time with no relief.

And I am one of them. For the past six years, I have incessantly heard this 24/7, 365. So far, I have been able to cope, but two million Americans are so severely affected by tinnitus, they cannot function.

Jarom’s tinnitus is tangled in a Gordian Knot with post-traumatic stress disorder.

JAROM VAHAI: You know, to have those memories come back is terrible. And to have tinnitus as a trigger, and a trigger that never stops, you know, it’s very — it’s miserable.


MILES O’BRIEN: I’ll bet.


Can we hold on for a second?

MILES O’BRIEN: Sure, of course. Take a break, yes.

WOMAN: Ringing in the ears used to bother me a lot.

MILES O’BRIEN: Scientists say there is no cure for tinnitus, despite what you might have heard. In fact, there is much more to tinnitus than what meets the ear.

JOSEF RAUSCHECKER, Georgetown University: It starts with the ears, but it really is something that happens in the brain. This is a DTI scan.

Josef Rauschecker is a professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University.

JOSEF RAUSCHECKER: OK. So, there is your ear.

MILES O’BRIEN: He says nearly every tinnitus suffer does have some degree of hearing loss. After a lifetime of flying in noisy, small airplanes, I no longer hear high frequencies. It means the raw data that is sent to my brain’s hearing center, the auditory cortex, contains less information that before. It has gaps.

JOSEF RAUSCHECKER: The brain doesn’t like gaps or holes in its perception. So it tries to fill in that — that hole that comes from the loss of receptors in the ear.

MILES O’BRIEN: Rauschecker says the auditory cortex apparently fills the gaps by firing neurons that generate noise in the missing frequency range. The brain’s executive center, the prefrontal cortex, is supposed to step in and turn down the volume.

JOSEF RAUSCHECKER: And that’s very handy, of course, in everyday situations. You don’t want to hear everything that goes on around us. And then it breaks down sometimes. And that’s when you actually get — end up getting chronic tinnitus.

MILES O’BRIEN: At the University of California, San Francisco, otolaryngology professor Steven Cheung is focused on yet another part of the brain that may come into play to create phantom sounds, the basal ganglia.

STEVEN CHEUNG, University of California-San Francisco: This very central part of the brain is very important in determining what we choose to perceive and what we can perceive.

MILES O’BRIEN: Cheung believes the basal ganglia may play a key role in controlling our awareness of the phantom noise. That discovery came when surgeons implanted electrodes into the brains of Parkinson’s patients to reduce their tremors. Surprisingly, many who also suffered from tinnitus got immediate relief from the noise. Apparently, the electrical stimulus changes the volume.

STEVEN CHEUNG: And much to our surprise and delight, in fact, we can both make tinnitus louder and softer, which means that you now have some method to modulate an internal sound and, for this matter, an auditory phantom.

MILES O’BRIEN: I volunteered to become a subject in one of Cheung’s studies. Over the course of one long day, he and his team scanned me three times in three state-of-the-art MRI machines.

WOMAN: Take your time. And…


MILES O’BRIEN: That’s a lot of scanning in one day.



MILES O’BRIEN: I’m scanned out.

In theory, you — you can look at a scan and say, ah, there’s the tinnitus? Are we at that point?

STEVEN CHEUNG: We may not be able to hear your tinnitus, but I should be able to see it on functional MRI.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, that’s — that’s very exciting right there, isn’t it?

STEVEN CHEUNG: Yes, indeed. It would be an objective measure for tinnitus, and that’s what we’re — that’s what we’re working toward. 

MILES O’BRIEN: In the meantime, some tinnitus sufferers are trying to train their brains to deal with the phantom noise in a different manner.

JENNIFER GANS, clinical psychologist: Tonight is an opportunity for us to talk something that I bet we have never talked about before as a group.

MILES O’BRIEN: I joined Jarom Vahai and some other veterans at a mindfulness-based tinnitus stress-reduction session in San Francisco.

JAROM VAHAI: But I noticed that it would — it does progress and get worse.

MILES O’BRIEN: There are times — it makes it hard at times when I’m in a quiet place.

MAN: Over the years, it’s just gotten progressively worse, where it’s been getting louder and louder.

JENNIFER GANS: Maybe going from toe to head and head to toe, just noticing whatever is there to be felt.

MILES O’BRIEN: The class was pioneered by clinical psychologist Jennifer Gans.

JENNIFER GANS: You may notice as you’re doing this that your mind wanders.

MILES O’BRIEN: She teaches mindfulness with some basic meditation techniques. She adapted it from similar treatments for people with chronic pain.

Gans says those who complete the eight-week course report less awareness of tinnitus and reduced depression and anxiety levels.

JENNIFER GANS: We can redirect the fear of the tinnitus sensation to the fact that, you know what, this is just a sound. It’s not here to kill us. We can let it go.

MILES O’BRIEN: But, for me, it also helps to try and cover it up. And for that, I wear hearing aids. The amplification brings back the range of hearing my auditory cortex is missing, and my hearing aids also have a white noise generator, which can mask the tinnitus when I’m particularly bothered by it.

Jarom Vahai has found the best tinnitus treatment for him is this little guy, his service dog, Chewy.

JAROM VAHAI: Yes, my pain comes and goes. It’s really bad at times. But the tinnitus is always there. It’s always there.

MILES O’BRIEN: Maybe someday, a cure will be there, maybe.