Bored of the rings

For people suffering from tinnitus, the irritating ringing, buzzing or hissing in the ears can be debilitating. Even if you’ve never had it, you can probably relate. If you’ve ever had water stuck in your ear after swimming, you’ll know that even the mildest change to your hearing can be a total pain. Just like with a blocked nose when you’re suffering from a cold, it’s all you can think about.

Frustratingly for those that suffer with tinnitus, it’s not a disease or illness and as such has no medical cure. It is generally attributed to some kind of change, either mental or physical, and not necessarily even to do with hearing. It can also be intermittent, so for days, weeks or months at a time you may think it has gone, only for it to return and ruin your sleep, work or social outing.

It is reported in all age groups, even in young children, and will affect about 30% of us at some point in our lives, though the number of people living permanently with it is around 10% according to research carried out by

The challenge

As there is no clear way to ‘cure’ tinnitus – as it’s not an illness, more a reaction by the brain to unfamiliar or affected aural activity or stress – this month’s challenge is to come up with a device to lessen the effects of this debilitating condition. There are no limits to what you can design, just as long as it causes no adverse effects to its user.

The idea we have in mind will be revealed in the February issue of Eureka! Until then see what you can come up with. Submit your ideas by leaving a comment on the Coffee Time Challenge section of the Eureka! website or by emailing the editor:

The solution

The solution to last month’s Coffee Time Challenge comes from researchers at the University of Michigan who have developed a device to reduce the effects of tinnitus in sufferers by targeting unruly nerve activity in the brain.

Based on years of scientific research into the root causes of the condition, the device uses precisely timed sounds and weak electrical pulses that activate touch-sensitive nerves, both aimed at steering damaged nerve cells back to normal activity.

The approach, called targeted bimodal auditory-somatosensory stimulation, involves two senses. The device plays a sound into the ears, alternating it with precisely timed, mild electrical pulses delivered to the cheek or neck.

Human participants reported that after four weeks of daily use of the device, the loudness of phantom sounds decreased, and their tinnitus-related quality of life improved. Some said their phantom sounds got less harsh or piercing or became easier to ignore. Two participants said their tinnitus disappeared completely, but no patient experienced a worsening of symptoms or quality of life, or other adverse events.