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UB Student Awarded Research Grant to Stop the Noise

Release Date: May 30, 2012

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- University at Buffalo neuroscience PhD student Sarah Hayes has won a $10,000 grant from the American Tinnitus Association (ATA) to aid her in her search for the causes of tinnitus. ATA is the largest nonprofit organization working to cure tinnitus.

While many people have never heard of tinnitus, about one in five has experienced the condition, characterized as hearing a phantom sound in the ears such as ringing or buzzing. The group of people Hayes is focusing her research on is the one percent of the population who hear the sound regularly at debilitating levels.

Hayes, now in her third year in the PhD program in neuroscience, an interdisciplinary program of the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, was first introduced to tinnitus while working in the lab of Richard Salvi, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders and Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. She became so interested in the subject that she took up researching causes of the condition for her thesis.

"I wanted to do research that is clinically relevant -- research with the goal of helping people suffering from a disorder, or helping to find cures for different neurological disorders," said Hayes, a native of Hamburg, New York, who received her BS in biology from Canisius College. "But I'm also interested by the fact that it is a phantom auditory perception. I think trying to understand how we perceive the world is fascinating."

Currently there is no cure for tinnitus, and Hayes believes that this is mainly due to the condition not being fully understood.

It was previously believed that tinnitus was a result of damage to the inner ear, but studies conducted in the 1990s by Salvi, a member of the Tinnitus Research Initiative, and his colleagues produced findings that suggested the condition originated in the brain.

Tinnitus has been linked to noise-induced hearing loss as well. Aside from the elderly, military personnel make up a large population of the people affected by the condition, as some soldiers are constantly exposed to loud blasts and explosions.

The U.S. Department of Defense is so concerned with the issue that they are backing Hayes' research. They have provided Hayes with the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, which provides her with full tuition remission and an annual stipend.

For Hayes' thesis, she will look into the relationship between stress and tinnitus. One of the major potential factors associated with tinnitus is chronic stress. Although tinnitus itself causes stress, elevated stress can worsen the condition and even make the perceived sound louder. At present, the mechanism through which chronic stress may contribute to the generation of tinnitus is unknown.

Hayes will use her award from the ATA to purchase lab equipment and supplies.

At the moment, Hayes conducts all of her tests using animal models of tinnitus, but she is working on an AuD in clinical audiology from the UB Department of Communicative Disorders and Sciences, a degree that will give her the necessary credentials to work with people.

"Having a clinical audiology degree will allow me to work with human patients and adapt discoveries we find in the lab to work in humans," she said.

Although she is not currently working with human patients in her lab, Hayes can still hear firsthand how the condition affects their lives through the Tinnitus Support Group run by the UB Center for Hearing and Deafness.