“The Noise in Their Heads,” by Alpha Unit

It’s one of the most common disabilities among returning war veterans. Construction and factory workers often end up with it.

KT Tunstall got it in 2008 by sitting too close to the speakers at a concert.

Will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas has it. He says he doesn’t know what silence sounds like any more, and that music is the only thing that eases it.

Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich developed it early in his career, when the loud noise from his shows would follow him offstage. It worsened over time. He’d get up in the middle of the night to turn off the TV, only to realize that the TV wasn’t on.

Other musicians reported to suffer from it include Al Di Meola, Jeff Beck, Danny Elfman, and Andy Partridge.

All of these people and millions more suffer from tinnitus, a constant ringing or buzzing sound in the ear. There is really no way to treat it so far. Different people describe it different ways: ringing, hissing, whooshing, roaring, buzzing, crickets, screeching – even music. It can be intermittent or constant. In one ear, or both ears – or even throughout the entire head. From soft to extremely loud.

Some people suffer from it so badly they can’t work. One retired firefighter told The San Francisco Chronicle that his tinnitus made him suicidal at one point. He says it’s like hearing a “high-voltage electrical buzzing” in his head all the time. Erin Allday, reporting on findings by UC Berkeley scientists, writes:

Doctors have known for several years that the cause of tinnitus is not in the ear alone, but in the brain. In research released last week, the UC Berkeley team found that tinnitus may be similar to the “phantom limb” syndrome that amputees sometimes experience – neurons continue firing in parts of the brain associated with hearing, even though they’re getting no input from the ear.

Shaowen Bao of UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute suggests that exposing tinnitus patients to frequencies near the ones they are no longer able to hear might coax neurons to accept input from frequencies similar to ones they lost – remapping the brain, so to speak, and providing relief.

Drugs might also be helpful in preventing the neurons from constantly firing, but it doesn’t appear to be a good idea so far, since the drugs have serious side effects, including blindness.

But these research findings out of UC Berkeley are some of the most promising to date for effective treatment of tinnitus, which can be debilitating for some of the people suffering from it. Michael Merzenich, professor of otolaryngology at UC San Francisco, has been studying brain remapping for years, and says that several patients reported improvement for tinnitus after their brains were retrained – and this was even before Bao and his colleagues reported their findings.

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