Published May 22, 2014
Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, affects approximately 10 million Americans and is now the major disability of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. The origins of the condition, which causes someone to hear noise when there isn’t any, remain unknown.
For more than two decades, researchers and clinicians in UB’s Center for Hearing and Deafness have worked to identify the origins of tinnitus and treat Western New Yorkers suffering from the condition.
Their accomplishments over the years have earned much recognition, most recently with awards from national and state organizations.
Center director and pioneering tinnitus researcher Richard Salvi, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Communicative Disorders and Sciences, in February received the James B. Snow Jr., MD, Tinnitus Research Award from the Association for Research in Otolaryngology, the premiere organization promoting research in the field of otolaryngology. The award recognizes Salvi for “the vision, commitment and excellence of his contributions to the advance of research in the field of tinnitus.”
The award is given in honor of Snow, founder and director of the Tinnitus Research Consortium, an organization that funded grants to support research into the causes and treatment of tinnitus for approximately 20 years before folding this year after the death of its benefactor.
Snow, who also was the first director of the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, was the first recipient of the award; Salvi was the second.
Salvi donated the $1,000 honorarium that came with the award — plus another $1,000 — to the American Tinnitus Association to support student research grants.
The accolades for the Center for Hearing and Deafness continued in March when its Tinnitus Research Program received the 2014 Distinguished Clinical Service Program Award from the New York State Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The award, presented at the association’s Honors and Awards program held as part of its 54th annual meeting, recognizes programs that have contributed significantly and substantially to the clinical care of communicatively impaired individuals on a continuing basis.
The two awards “recognize the many accomplishments researchers in the Center for Hearing and Deafness have made in understanding the neural mechanisms in the brain that appear to be responsible for the phantom sound of tinnitus,” Salvi says.
“The basic research has spawned efforts in the UB Speech and Hearing Clinic to develop treatments for tinnitus patients that include advanced hearing aids, sound therapy, education and counseling. In addition,” he says, “the center has run the Western New York Tinnitus Support Group for nearly 20 years to provide tinnitus patients with the most up-to-date information on tinnitus causes and treatments.”
Back in the early 1990s, Salvi and Alan Lockwood, now emeritus professor of neurology at UB, used positron emission tomography to identify regions in the brain involved in tinnitus — groundbreaking work that revolutionized thinking about the origins of tinnitus by shifting the source of the aberrant neural activity from the cochlea, or inner ear, to the brain. The findings, supported by a National Institutes of Health grant, are now well-accepted in the scientific community.
The publicity generated by this research led to increasing numbers of tinnitus patients seeking diagnosis and treatment at UB. Over the years the UB Speech and Hearing Clinic has become one of the top places to go for treatment of tinnitus.
The clinic currently is one of four institutions nationwide participating in an NIH-funded clinical trial to test an implantable device that helps retrain the part of the brain involved in hearing. While the trial, headed by Christina Stocking, clinical assistant professor, is small, it is the first step toward a potential, new treatment for tinnitus.