Vagus Nerve Stimulation for Tinnitus

  • Dr. Michael Kilgard
  • University researchers are working with neuroscience-based medical device company MicroTransponder on a potential treatment for tinnitus
  • Dr. Robert Rennaker

Project Overview

Researchers are gearing up for a clinical trial designed to evaluate the effectiveness of a novel tinnitus therapy developed at UT Dallas. The trial, expected to begin this year, would involve UT Dallas and other facilities throughout the country.

Tinnitus is usually described as a persistent, annoying and painful ringing in the ears. It causes mild irritation for some people, but is severely disabling for many others. Nerve damage or trauma to the cochlea – the portion of the inner ear that converts sound waves into electrical signals in the brain – can result in a loss of input to the brain. This lack of input can result in changes to the auditory system, which is believed to be responsible for some forms of tinnitus.

The therapeutic approach developed at UT Dallas combines audible tones with brief pulses of electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve in the neck. Preclinical tests demonstrated that this approach “rewires” damaged brain circuitry associated with tinnitus, potentially yielding long-term reversal of symptoms. The initial human trial in Belgium provided encouraging results.

Stage of Development

The tinnitus therapy project is in the translational stage of development.

This project is being funded by the National Institutes of Health, MicroTransponder, UT Southwestern Medical Center and the Texas Biomedical Device Center at UT Dallas.

Development Team

The tinnitus research is a collaboration among the Texas Biomedical Device Center, Communication Technology Center, Callier Center for Communication Disorders, UT Southwestern Medical Center and MicroTransponder, a bioengineering firm. The team of researchers includes:

Michael Kilgard, PhD

Kilgard is a professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. His research focuses on understanding how experience rewires the brain. He is particularly interested in how experience with speech sounds alters the brain. Understanding how it adapts to new situations could help in developing new treatments for disorders such as tinnitus, autism and stroke.

Robert Rennaker, PhD

An associate professor in neural engineering, Rennaker is involved in development of neural interface systems. His other research focus is systems level neuroscience. Additional interests include auditory neuroscience, plasticity and attention. He is acting director of the Texas Biomedical Device Center at UT Dallas.

Jeffrey Martin, PhD

Martin is a clinical assistant professor and head of clinical audiology at the Callier Center. He has conducted research on the central mechanisms in hearing. Clinical applications of his research revolve around evaluation of individuals suspected of having auditory perceptual problems linked to the central nervous system, conditions known as auditory processing disorders.

Peter Roland, MD

Roland is chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He also is a director of the Dallas Cochlear Implant Program. He has served on key panels of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery and has investigated the causes of and best treatments for a wide variety of ear-related medical problems.

Angela Shoup, PhD

As director of the Division of Communicative and Vestibular Disorders at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Shoup’s research interests include implementation of universal newborn hearing screening programs, developmental issues in audition, auditory electrophysiology, diagnostic assessment for auditory and vestibular disorders, hearing aids and cochlear implants. She provides administrative oversight for a group of audiologists offering hearing services at UT Southwestern-related facilities and serves as an adjunct professor at UT Dallas.