Lauer Tinnitus Research Center

M. Charles Liberman, Ph.D., Jennifer Melcher, Ph.D., Daniel Polley, Ph.D., and Konstantina Stankovic, M.D., Ph.D., leading forces of the Lauer Tinnitus Research Center

In partnership with the Lauer family, Mass. Eye and Ear launched the Lauer Tinnitus Research Center in 2015 with the goal of advancing research to better understand and treat the debilitating condition of tinnitus.

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Tinnitus or “ringing in the ears” is an often unbearable condition that affects more than 50 million Americans. It refers to the perception of sound when no external sound is present. Tinnitus has long been associated with hearing damage (e.g., overexposure to loud sound); but in recent years, scientists have hypothesized that loss of neuronal activity, from either auditory or non-auditory centers, can result in a re-adjustment in the neural circuits that mediate hearing. When the brain does not receive adequate sensory input, it may compensate by amplifying all the signals it receives. In some situations, this readjustment may lead to the perception of sounds when no sounds are present.

Led by M. Charles Liberman, Ph.D., Jennifer Melcher, Ph.D., Daniel Polley, Ph.D., and Konstantina Stankovic, M.D., Ph.D., the Research Center brings together years of experience and state-of-the-art research techniques to bear on the problem of tinnitus. 

The following strategies are underway to study tinnitus in the ear and the brain:

  • Hidden Hearing Loss and Tinnitus – Dr. Charlie Liberman, along with his colleague Dr. Sharon Kujawa, discovered in 2009 that even brief exposure to loud noise can result in permanent loss of auditory nerve fibers. They named this condition “hidden hearing loss,” because it does not affect the audiogram. However, it likely causes difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments and may well hold the key to the generation of tinnitus. Dr. Liberman and his colleagues are working on therapeutic approaches to regrow these sensory neurons in hopes of restoring hearing function and alleviating tinnitus.
  • Imaging the Inner Ear in Tinnitus – Dr. Konstantina Stankovic is pioneering the development of a new technology to non-invasively image the tiny sensory cells of the human inner ear. Because the inner ear is encased in the hardest bone in the body, no current imaging techniques can “see” the cells and neurons of the ear. Her research aims to develop an endoscope to be used in the exam room to assess neuronal survival in the inner ear, a key to diagnosing the cause of tinnitus.

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  • Animal Models of Tinnitus in the Brain – Dr. Dan Polley is a leading expert in the function of the auditory cortex and its ability to remodel and restore function after damage. He will develop a mouse model of tinnitus and, using the most powerful imaging tools available, assess the patterns of neural activity in the auditory cortex of behaving mice. His research will test basic hypotheses about the neural basis for tinnitus, which will help identify the appropriate cellular targets for pharmaceutical treatments.
  • Testing Tinnitus Strategies in Humans - In 2000, Dr. Jennifer Melcher was the first to demonstrate tinnitus-related hyperactivity in the human brain using functional MRI imaging (fMRI). An expert in this technique, she will use fMRI to scientifically test the efficacy of potential strategies for tinnitus. Her first targets will be to investigate the efficacy of hearing aids and bite guards to alleviate tinnitus. Her research will provide evidence-based knowledge to physicians and patients and help to offer near-term treatment options for some patients.

The Lauer Tinnitus Research Center will undoubtedly drive the field forward in developing scientifically proven treatments to alleviate tinnitus.