Daily pill that can stop the ringing in your ears
By Roger Dobson
A mineral found in spinach and other green leafy vegetables is being used to treat people with chronic tinnitus — characterised by an inexplicable ringing or buzzing in the ears.
Researchers believe the mineral magnesium plays a key role in protecting our hearing system and that supplements taken daily will reduce tinnitus.
This condition is believed to permanently affect one in ten adults, with one in three people experiencing it at some point in their life.
The clinical trial of 40 patients, at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, America, is due to start this month.
Tinnitus is believed to permanently affect one in ten adults, with one in three people experiencing it at some point in their life
The trial subjects will be split into two groups; one will take a 535mg magnesium tablet every day, while the other group will take a daily placebo pill.
The trial follows previous studies that linked low levels of magnesium in the body to a higher risk of noise-induced hearing loss.
Tinnitus is usually accompanied by some hearing loss and researchers believe the same biological malfunction in our body’s hearing system may cause both conditions.
Tinnitus is triggered by a range of factors, such as ear infections, adverse reactions to some medications (such as aspirin), high blood pressure or age-related hearing damage. Prolonged exposure to loud noise can also trigger it and sufferers include musicians Phil Collins and Eric Clapton.
Tinnitus can affect one or both ears and there is no cure. The condition is linked to problems with hair cells in the inner ear. These cells vibrate in response to sound waves and these vibrations are translated into electrical signals which are sent to the brain via nerves.
When these cells become weakened or damaged — through infection or over-exposure to loud noise, for instance — they send a constant stream of abnormal signals along the nerves. The brain interprets these signals as sounds of ringing, humming or buzzing. Damage to these hair cells also causes deafness.
Magnesium is needed to help maintain normal nerve function in the body and good sources include green leafy vegetables, bread and dairy products.
The UK recommended daily intake is 300mg. Higher doses can trigger diarrhoea, stomach cramps and cause complications in patients with kidney disease. Therefore, they should be taken only under medical supervision, say the scientists.
The team believe a lack of the mineral in the hair cells may contribute to tinnitus.
One function of magnesium is to stop too much calcium being released by the body. Calcium causes small blood vessels to narrow and a lack of blood flow to the hair cells is thought to contribute to the condition as it reduces their supply of oxygen and nutrients. Another theory is that magnesium blocks glutamate, a brain chemical responsible for sending signals between nerve cells.
Although this chemical is important for relaying messages throughout the body, too much of it can damage nerve cells, especially in the body’s hearing system. Previous studies suggest that exposure to loud noise triggers the over-production of glutamate.
Dr Ralph Holme, head of biomedical research at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), says: ‘Everyday life can often be frustrating and distressing for people experiencing tinnitus, and RNID is keen to see effective treatments developed to cure or treat the condition.
‘Only a small group of people are being tested in this study, so it will be hard for researchers to show whether a magnesium supplement can meaningfully reduce the effects of tinnitus. But, the research may encourage future larger-scale trials.’
Elsewhere, researchers are testing a new treatment for hearing loss in people who listen to loud music or work in noisy environments.
The trial, which is being conducted in the U.S., Spain and Sweden, will involve 60 young people who use MP3 players, 25 arms officers taking part in combat training in Sweden, 130 Nato soldiers and 120 factory workers.
Half of the group will be given a placebo, while the other half will be given a daily pill containing the antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamins C and E.
The team hope these antioxidants will help protect the hearing cells in the ear.
The group, who have good hearing, will take the pill for two years and will be tested throughout this time.
Animal studies have found this combination of compounds can be effective in protecting hearing loss. This is the first trial to test the theory in humans.