Published August 3, 2012
Sarah Hayes will use the award to investigate the causes of tinnitus, focusing on the 1 percent of people with the condition who hear these phantom sounds regularly at debilitating levels.
The U.S. government is so concerned with tinnitus that it is also backing Hayes’ research.
The Department of Defense granted the third-year PhD candidate a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, which covers her tuition and provides an annual stipend.
A large number of military personnel suffer from tinnitus—which been linked to noise-induced hearing loss—due to their exposure to blasts and explosions.
Hayes became interested in tinnitus while working in the lab of Richard Salvi, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Communicative Disorders and Sciences and a member of the international Tinnitus Research Initiative.
“I wanted to do research that is clinically relevant—research with the goal of helping people suffering from a disorder or helping to find cures for different neurological disorders,” she says.
“I’m also interested in the fact that tinnitus is a phantom auditory perception. Trying to understand how we perceive the world is fascinating.”
For her PhD thesis, Hayes will examine the relationship between tinnitus and stress.
Although tinnitus itself causes stress, elevated stress can worsen the condition and even make the perceived sound louder. Researchers don’t yet understand the mechanism by which chronic stress may contribute to tinnitus.
Nor have they discovered a cure for the condition, which affects 20 percent of the population.
It was previously believed that tinnitus resulted from inner ear damage, but studies conducted by Salvi and colleagues in the 1990s suggest that it originates in the brain.
In addition to a PhD in neuroscience, Hayes is working toward a degree in clinical audiology at UB so that she can extend her reach beyond the laboratory.
“Having a clinical audiology degree will allow me to work with patients and adapt discoveries we make in the lab,” she says.