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'Ringing in the ear' may respond to alcoholism drug

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A new study suggests that a drug used to treat alcoholism also can help patients suffering from tinnitus, the "ringing in the ears" that makes life miserable for many people.

Nearly 90 percent of a small group of people with tinnitus reported substantial relief after taking the drug acamprosate, according to otolaryngologists at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

"In 47.8 percent of the cases, we found relief higher than 50 percent," the researchers report. "The incidence of side effects was low."

The researchers attribute acamprosate's success to its effect on glutamate, an amino acid that stimulates activity of the nervous system. Their theory is that tinnitus is caused by disruptions in the same glutamate pathways that are involved in addiction to alcohol.

Acamprosate, marketed as Campral by the French company Lipha Pharmaceuticals, is widely used in Europe and was approved last year by the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for alcohol dependence.

The researchers' findings are to be presented at the American Academy of Otolaryngology's annual meeting, which will start on Sept. 25 in Los Angeles.

The results and the theory behind them are viewed with caution, however, by Robert L. Folmer, chief of clinical services at the tinnitus clinic of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

"Over the years many different drug treatments have been tried for tinnitus," Folmer says. "The first reports are almost universally positive, but as time goes on you often don't hear about the drug being used again. I'm a bit skeptical about these early reports."

It's likely that the drug is effective against tinnitus because it quiets activity of GABA, which stimulates activity of the nervous system, Folmer says. Many people with tinnitus have trouble sleeping, and acamprosate may help them by making them drowsy.

"Other drugs that are antagonists to glutamate haven't worked out well," Folmer says.

Robert F. Burkard, a professor in the University of Buffalo's department of communicative disorders and sciences and otolaryngology, and Richard Salvi, director of the university's Center for Hearing and Deafness -- who is also chairman of the American Tinnitus Association's scientific advisory committee -- also point to problems in the study.

There were relatively few people in the study, they point out in a joint statement, with only 25 getting the drug.

"It is possible that patients could recognize when they were taking the drug due to its side effects," the two say. In addition, "the metrics for assessing tinnitus improvement are not clearly described" and "as with all drug studies, this needs to be replicated in other laboratories or clinical settings."

Despite all those caveats, however, Salvi and Burkard say, "the results in the paper are encouraging."

If acamprosate were proven to be effective for tinnitus, Folsom says, it would be a first.

"We don't recommend any medications," he says, "because we haven't found any that are particularly effective."

The Oregon clinic was the first of its kind, Folsom adds, "and so far we have found no quick fix."

(The HealthDay Web site is at

c.2005 HealthDay News

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