Future of tinnitus treatment could involve illegal party drug
Researchers are one step closer to finding out whether a banned party drug can help manage tinnitus.
The first approved trials of tinnitus treatment using the drug MDMA, which is a component of ecstasy, have been undertaken as a joint study between the University of Auckland and the University of Otago.
Tinnitus - chronic noise in the ears or head unrelated to any outside sound - affects about one in five New Zealanders.
University of Auckland senior lecturer Grant Searchfield said there had been enough reports from those with tinnitus who had taken ecstasy and felt benefits that as researchers they had been obliged to follow up.
The MDMA studies over the past two years have involved a small number of participants in placebo-controlled trials.
Participants were given a small dose of MDMA or a placebo and monitored over a four-hour time period.
They were not given enough MDMA to feel 'high', but many reported an easing of tinnitus after three hours.
Participants who felt benefits also reported those same effects were maintained for a week or more.
Over two separate trials, researchers administered doses of 30 mg or 70 mg of MDMA, which was imported under strict controls and dispensed by pharmacists working as part of the research team.
These were quite low doses as researchers needed to avoid issues and find the optimum dosage.
There was quite a large placebo effect reported from participants, so researchers were using brain imaging to help pull that apart from the effects of MDMA.
Tinnitus is not a disease but can be brought on by many factors including diabetes, ear infections, whiplash or other trauma.
Many learn to adjust their lives to cope but for others it can be crippling.
"Our goal is to try and find a medication for tinnitus. It can have catastrophic effects," Searchfield said.
"Whether MDMA is it or whether it's a trial for us to identify what is going on in the brain is still an open question."
If the party drug was found to improve symptoms of tinnitus then there would be issues with administering it as a medication, including potential drug abuse and side effects, he said.
Searchfield expected the analysis of the brain imaging to take a few months before researchers decided on the next step.
More funding would be needed for further trials.
Searchfield said things had to move slowly because of the potential hazards of using a banned substance.
The low dosage had so far ensured there were no reported feelings of euphoria that are normally associated with MDMA and no negative side effects, he said.