Tinnitus and Auditory Science

Dr. Thanos Tzounopoulos
Dr. Thanos Tzounopoulos

Tinnitus is a condition that affects somewhere between 10% - 20% of the population in the United States. Often characterized as a persistent ringing in the ears, tinnitus can range from manageable to completely debilitative. Sufferers have described the ringing “sound” to be similar to a high pitched noise, to a far more serious and constant crashing or exploding sound that gets in the way of conversations, concentration, and daily life.

Until recently, not much was known about the cause or source of tinnitus. Theories generally involved some kind of malfunctions in the inner ear, such as ingrown hairs, or various ear drum conditions, though these theories were disproven by the lack of an actual identifiable “sound.” Within the last few years, however, scientists have found the source and cause of tinnitus. Dr. Thanos Tzounopoulos, of our Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh, was among the first researchers to locate the source of tinnitus – not in the ear, but in the brain. As it turns out, tinnitus is caused by misfiring neuron in the auditory center of the brain, generally due to an imbalance of inhibitors and stimulus in auditory sensation. In other words, the brain is mistakenly responding to sound, where no sound exists, creating the tinnitus effect.

Since this landmark discovery, our scientists have been the first to develop an effective animal model of tinnitus, based on behavioral patterns, that has been enormously helpful in researching ways to recognize and help the disorder. One of the most significant insights gained through Dr. Tzounopoulos’ research, is the change in one of the five potassium markers within the brain that only occurs when tinnitus is present. Our lab believes that this is evidence of tinnitus being a result of a specific potassium channel deficiency. New explorations are underway to determine whether a specific drug can be altered to directly affect this potassium channel, restoring it to proper levels, and thereby relieving, or at the least preventing, the tinnitus condition.

Further research is underway, but more support is always needed to help get there. More information can be found in the links below.