SoundCure, a new Corporate Champion of ATA, was founded and developed to explore the positive early results of some ATA funded research and bring a tinnitus solution to patients. In 2008, ATA funded a tinnitus suppression research grant to Fan-Gang Zeng, Ph.D., (pictured left) Director of the Center for Hearing Research at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). We wanted to share with you the following success story that begins with a tinnitus patient desperately seeking relief and ends with the introduction of a newly developed technology that is being used to help tinnitus sufferers today. The name of the patient has been changed to protect his privacy.
Musicians and music industry professionals rely on their ears for their work. So for Michael, a 46 year old musician and audio engineer, an abrupt total loss of hearing and the simultaneous onset of severe tinnitus in one ear changed his life dramatically. His tinnitus sounded like a constant “shhhhh” noise combined with a high pitched squeal. He was soon unable to work or play his drums. He felt depressed, irritable, and hopeless, and had trouble sleeping. He tried everything possible to find relief, and visited several medical centers and specialists, without success. Medications didn’t help, and left him feeling lethargic. In 2007, as a last resort, Michael received a cochlear implant, a surgical implant used to treat deafness - but his tinnitus remained.
His surgeon referred him to Dr. Fan-Gang Zeng, Director of the Center for Hearing Research at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and a professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology. Dr. Zeng and his team, taking cues from published literature, delivered a high frequency tone via the cochlear implant in an attempt to relieve Michael’s tinnitus, but this too failed. Months of frustrating trial and error ensued, with Dr. Zeng’s team conducting many unsuccessful sessions delivering high pitched tones through the implant. To everyone’s great surprise, when a low pitched modulated tone was applied, Michael’s tinnitus abated for the first time in years. He sat in the sound booth relishing the quiet, and wished there was something he could take home for continued relief—it was an emotional experience. According to Michael, “It was a much friendlier sound and it seemed to fuse with my tinnitus noise. It was low, calming, and peaceful and felt like long overdue therapy”. Dr. Zeng wondered if other tinnitus patients could also benefit from this approach.
ATA Grant Leads to Breakthrough
An ATA research grant allowed Dr. Zeng and Ph.D. candidates Jeff Carroll and Qing Tang to continue work in this area. “The NIH would never have funded me,” Dr. Zeng says. “They tend to fund more mature projects. I am grateful to the ATA for their support.”
White noise maskers, which have been used successfully to treat tinnitus for some, often require volume levels higher than the patient’s tinnitus. Many patients do not feel that substituting one loud, constant sound for another is much of an improvement. “It’s a matter of which poison you want to choose,” says Dr. Zeng.
The UCI team realized a significant clinical breakthrough using “amplitude modulation.” The sounds are first customized to the patient’s unique tinnitus by doing a frequency pitch matching process. Then with this approach, the amplitude (loudness) of the tones is very rapidly modulated, or altered – so quickly that the listener cannot consciously detect the changes. Modulated tones seem to keep the brain’s interest more than constant tones. They can also be played softer than the patient’s tinnitus rather than louder. Researchers believe that rather than masking, or covering up the tinnitus, they are interfering with or suppressing it. Prior published data from animal studies at Johns Hopkins confirmed that these types of sounds are processed by the brain similarly to how the cochlear implant sounds were for Michael.
A Novel Approach to Sound Therapy
The UCI team tested 20 patients. These results have just been published in the Journal of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology. The results showed that the amplitude modulated sounds were four times more likely to offer a reduction in tinnitus perception than white noise, and were the most effective out of all the tested treatment sounds. Overall, the short-term effect showed that 35% of patients received greater than 70% reduction in tinnitus perception, 35% of patients experienced a 30% to 50% reduction, and 30% of patients experienced less than 30% reduction. Looking at the short-term effect studied in the UCI trial, Dr. Zeng states, “We see excellent results in about a third of patients, pretty good results in another third and less benefit in a third.” This approach to sound therapy has however helped patients who had not benefitted from more traditional forms of tinnitus therapies before. This sound therapy is designed to be used in a tinnitus management program that uses habituation to provide longer term benefits.
Many scientific breakthroughs never make it out of the university lab. Fortunately in this case, the firm Allied Minds learned of the UCI work, licensed the technology, created a company called SoundCure™ and put together an executive team. Soon the first prototype sound therapy devices were engineered, and then FDA clearance was secured. In September 2011, SoundCure began offering the “Serenade® Tinnitus Treatment System” to audiologists along with comprehensive training in tinnitus evaluation and tinnitus management. The tones developed in Dr. Zeng’s lab are now known as “S-Tones®”.
Where Are They Now?
Dr. Zeng continues to devote time to tinnitus research. His graduate students who worked with him on the ATA grant have by now earned their Ph.D. titles and in turn, helped to launch S-Tones. Michael, known as “Patient Zero,” still manages his tinnitus but believes it is much better. He no longer needs medication and is active as a musician. He says, “I feel these very gifted people can make a difference. I believe many tinnitus sufferers now have options and hope for relief. These are good people making breakthroughs. Don’t give up. There is treatment out there.”
This technology is being offered in more clinics all the time. As usage grows, more patients are benefiting. Many notice improvements in a patient’s mood and symptoms, especially family members. Recently the wife of a patient noted that since treatment, he was laughing and joking again, like he used to. “I got my husband back,” she says.
This is an excellent success story of technology development, from a university invention created to meet a clinical need, to the support of the ATA and the company bringing it to patients. It is gratifying to see this process and partnership with the ATA succeed in bringing another treatment solution to tinnitus sufferers.