Liquid Batteries for Solar and Wind Power

In an industrial park on the outskirts of Pullman, Wash., 10 white storage trailers sit side by side, neatly arranged in two rows.

These are no ordinary storage units. Arranged on racks inside are the guts of a large rechargeable battery, the kind of device that can store and release utility-scale amounts of electricity.

But this is no ordinary storage battery, either. In contrast with the typical lead-acid batteries used to start car engines or the lithium-ion cells that power electric vehicles — both of which are largely solid — this battery is mostly liquid.

The chemicals that react to produce electricity are dissolved in water and circulated into and out of the heart of each cell, where the reaction occurs. For that reason, it is called a flow battery, and the one in Pullman, a demonstration project that will be tested over the next year and a half, is one of the largest in the world. It can store about 3.2 megawatt-hours of energy and discharge a megawatt of power for over three to four hours — enough to keep 500 average homes going for an afternoon.

Flow batteries are not new (and they are similar, in some ways, to fuel cells), but they have never really caught on. They were invented in France in the 19th century and studied by NASA in the 1970s as potential power sources in space or on the moon.

Now, flow batteries are being viewed as a possible way to help the electrical grid handle greater amounts of renewable energy, and they are being developed further by companies like UniEnergy Technologies, the maker of the Pullman battery, and academic and government researchers.

Because solar panels and wind turbines produce varying amounts of electricity during the day, utilities and system operators must work harder to integrate the renewable sources into the grid. Batteries are one way to do this, by storing excess electricity from solar panels during the middle of the day, for example, and releasing it in the evening.

Such batteries are being used mostly for purposes other than integrating renewables into the grid — for example, by providing short infusions of electricity to keep the grid stable. Only 60 megawatts of storage were in use in the United States last year. But storage is expected to grow rapidly as prices of batteries and related control equipment fall.

Other battery technologies — notably lithium ion, by virtue of its widespread use by Tesla Motors and other electric-car makers — have a head start in the market.

Experts say, however, that flow batteries have some advantages that make them well suited to grid storage.

“I see flow batteries as being increasingly important,” said Imre Gyuk, who manages an Energy Department program to help develop technologies for utility-scale electricity storage.

Lithium-ion and lead-acid batteries pack more power for their size, which makes them especially useful for tasks like turning over a gasoline engine or getting an electric car moving from a full stop. And watt per watt they are smaller than flow batteries, which have tanks for the liquid chemicals and equipment to pump them into the cells.

But on the grid, batteries do not need to supply a lot of power at once; instead, they need to provide energy steadily over time. And compact size is not as important.

“A smaller footprint is not as useful in a stationary battery,” Dr. Gyuk said.

Because the electricity-producing reactions take place in the liquids, increasing the size of the tanks allows flow batteries to store larger amounts of electricity. While there are practical and economic limits to their capacity, flow batteries are seen as having potential for situations where a battery system has to discharge a large amount of electricity for more than a few hours.

“If you’re talking six-hour batteries, you’re probably going to be looking at flow batteries,” said Matt Roberts, executive director of the Energy Storage Association, an industry group.

Rick Winter, chief operating officer of UniEnergy Technologies, which is based in Mukilteo, Wash., said flow batteries had other advantages as well. Compared with other batteries, which lose capacity as they go through many charge-discharge cycles and must eventually be replaced, flow batteries have much longer life — the company warrants the battery for 20 years and unlimited cycles. Flow batteries can also be completely discharged — something that is not recommended for lithium-ion and other types because it affects their longevity.

“There’s no physical mechanism for degrading the system,” Mr. Winter said. “It’s going to have the same power and energy rating no matter how many times you cycle it.”

The Pullman battery uses vanadium salts for its energy-producing reactions, a chemistry that was developed at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. (At a White House business forum four years ago, President Obama mentioned the vanadium process and commented, “That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever said out loud.”)

The demonstration project, which cost $7 million, was paid for by the region’s utility, Avista, and a grant from a state clean energy fund. It will be used to add electricity to the grid in times of peak demand, but because it is on the campus of a large electrical engineering company — a big user of electricity — it will also be tested as a large uninterruptible power supply. It will kick in nearly instantaneously in a power failure to keep the company’s sensitive digital equipment running.

“It will be fast enough that the equipment won’t notice the outage,” Mr. Winter said.

Dead feeder cells support stem cell growth

Stem cells naturally cling to feeder cells as they grow in petri dishes. Scientists have thought for years that this attachment occurs because feeder cells serve as a support system, providing stems cells with essential nutrients.

But a new study that successfully grew with dead, or fixed, feeder cells suggests otherwise.

The discovery, described in the Journal of Materials Chemistry B, challenges the theory that feeder cells provide nutrients to growing stem cells. It also means that the relationship between the two cells is superficial, according to Binata Joddar, Ph.D., a biomedical engineer at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).

“We’ve proved an important phenomenon,” said Joddar, who runs UTEP’s Inspired Materials and Stem-Cell Based Tissue Engineering Lab. “And it suggests that these feeder cells, which are difficult to grow, may not be important at all for stem cell growth.”

In the study, feeder cells were chemically fixed before living stem cells were placed in the same dish. Like organs that are preserved with formaldehyde, this kept the feeder cells’ physical appearance the same, but essentially killed them.

Even though the feeder cells were dead, the stem cells still latched on and grew successfully.

The discovery offers a simpler and more cost-effective way to grow stem cells, which has proved difficult over the years.

“Because feeder cells don’t need to stay alive in the process, we can store them at room temperature and spend less time cultivating them,” Joddar said.

Joddar believes the finding suggests that stem cells may only like the “topology” of feeder cells.

“This makes me think that we use a nanomanufacturing approach to grow stem cells,” she said. “We could mimic feeder cells’ nanotopology with 3-D printing techniques and skip using altogether in the future.”

Prostate Cancer Risk Linked to Baldness

Men who are losing their hair due to male pattern baldness may be at increased risk of dying from prostate cancer, a new study suggests.

Researchers analyzed information from more than 4,000 U.S. men ages 25 to 74, who were assessed by a dermatologist and categorized has having no balding, or minimal, moderate or severe balding.

Men with any degree of balding were 56 percent more likely to die from prostate cancer over a 21-year period, compared with men who were not losing their hair. What’s more, those with moderate balding were 83 percent more likely to die from prostate cancer, compared to those with no balding.

The findings support the hypothesis that a shared biological process influences both balding and prostate cancer, the researchers said. One theory is that high levels of male hormones (such as testosterone) play a role in both conditions. Men with male pattern baldness have been found to have higher levels of male hormones, and these hormones also fuel the growth of prostate cancer cells.

However, it’s too soon to make any recommendations about screening men for prostate cancer based on the findings, said study author Cindy Zhou, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute. “We still need future studies to replicate what we observed,” Zhou said.

If the findings are confirmed, male pattern baldness might be used as one indicator of a man’s risk of developing prostate cancer, which could help scientists determine which men should undergo prostate cancer screening, the researchers said. However, studies would first need to show that taking a man’s baldness into account actually improves researchers’ ability to predict the man’s prostate cancer risk, above and beyond what can be predicted using current risk factors, Zhou said.

An earlier study found that men who start to bald in their 20s were at higher risk for prostate cancer than men who don’t start to lose their hair until later, but the new study found a link between balding and fatal prostate cancer regardless of age.

Interestingly, the new study did not find a link between severe balding and an increased risk of fatal prostate cancer. This could be because there were few men in the study with severe balding, which limited the ability of the study to detect a link, Zhou said.

A Man Claims to Have Not Eaten or Drank Any Liquids For 70 Years. Science Examines Him

Is it possible for us to survive with no food and water? Doctors are trying to determine that as they are baffled by an Indian man who claims not to have eaten or drank anything for the last 70 years. What is even more shocking? He is in perfect health.

Prahlad Jani is a local to the Indian city of Ahmedabad and is claiming he has not consumed any food or liquids since he was 8-years old. He also claims to have been blessed at the age of 8 by a goddess. This allows him to survive without sustenance except for that which he derives from the practice of meditation.

From April 22nd until  May 6th 2010 in the private hospital Sterling Hospital, Prahlad Jani was observed and tested by Sudhir Shah and a team of 35 researchers all from the Indian Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) and other organizations.

The large team studied Jani daily using clinical examinations, blood tests, and scans. 24 hour CCTV surveillance was used to ensure the maximum observation of Jani’s actions during the testing period. According to researchers, the only time Jani was taken out of his sealed room was for tests and exposure to sun. During these times, continuous video recording was done to ensure authenticity of results. Jani only had contact with any form of liquid when he had an occasional bathing session, which first took place on day 5, and when he would gargle some water. It is important to note that his toilet was sealed to test his claims that he did not urinate or defecate.


After the fifteen days of intensive observation during which Jani did not eat, drink or go to the toilet, all medical test results came back as normal and doctors described his health as being better than someone half his age. Interestingly, doctors reported that although the amount of liquid in Jani’s bladder fluctuated and that Jani appeared “able to generate urine in his bladder”, he did not pass any urine. The reported levels of Jani’ leptin and ghrelin, two appetite-related hormones, suggested that Jani may be demonstrating an extreme form of adaptation to starvation and water restriction.

Even after the 15 day examination, DIPAS is still interested in running tests on Jani to determine how metabolic waste material is eliminated from his body, where he gets his energy for sustenance, and how he maintains his hydration status.

The director of DIPAS believes that the results of Jani’s observations could “tremendously benefit mankind.” Professor Anil Gupta of SRISTI, involved in monitoring the tests, described the team as being “intrigued” by Jani’s kriyas apparently allowing him to control his body’s physiological functions.

Most people can live without food for several weeks, with the body drawing on its fat and protein stores. But the average human can survive for only three to four days without water. How is Jani able to achieve what he is achieving? Some believe that his access to bathing allowed him to store liquid in the body. Since the observation did not go on for longer than 15 days, some believe he might have eaten or drank after.

But Jani is not the first person to be tested with such claims. HRM, another Indian man, was tested for 411 days intensively after he claimed that he did not eat any food. While HRM did consume boiled water, during his 411 day observation it was confirmed that he did not eat during the period and yet his health was perfect.

To me this is exciting because regardless of the current science we accept when it comes to the physiology of the body, we are seeing that we may not have it all correct and that it is possible to change the consciousness of our body to operate differently. Having tried sungazing for several long periods myself, I can attest to the fact that you certainly get energy, and what feels like nutrient energy, from the sun alone. While sungazing, I found I could perform physical activity with much more energy than I could while eating healthy meals. Of course I cannot say my results are conclusive as I did not do them for long enough, but it’s my experience on the matter.

Watch the video. URL:

Plantar Fasciitis or Jogger’s Heel. How to Get Rid of The Pain in The Heel | Your Stylish Life

“Plantar fasciitis” or “jogger’s heel “, intolerable pain in the heel, is a rather widespread problem. Here we will try to explain what plantar fasciitis really is.

Plantar fasciitis (jogger’s heel) or Calcar calcaneal, is a structural break down of the heel bone.It is considered that this reactive formation of the bone appears due to a chronic and mechanical overload, and due to an irritation that happened while walking which caused pain.

Plantar fasciitis is a common condition for people who stand a lot in their professions and for older people. When you are suffering from this condition you feel a severe pain in the middle of the heel. This pain doesn’t allow you to move your heel a lot.

These painful symptoms occur as soon as you take the first steps after sitting too long or after sleeping. The painful symptoms appear in the heel or in its inner surface.

According to the people suffering from it, this pain can be unbearable. They compare it to hammering nails right on the heel.

Traditional methods of the treatment are considered to be as effective as any other cream purchased at the pharmacy..

There are many recipes that can be used in the treatment of this condition. However these have proven to be the most effective ones.

  1. For this treatment all you need to do is hit the heel on the floor slowly several times a day. This way you are increasing the circulation of the calcium,you are improving the metabolism and you are preventing the deposit of salt.
  2. Potato coatings can help you relieve the strong pain. The important thing is to wash the potatoes and grate them, together, with the peel.

As soon as the mixture is ready, put it on a gauze and fasten it on the painful place. Wrap your feet with a nylon bag and put your socks on. Change the covering on a daily basis. Repeat the procedure every day for 7 to 8 days.

  1. Salt and honey coatings. Take same amounts of salt and honey and mix them together. Put them on the painful areas. Now take a piece of gauze and put it above, then stick it with a plaster and wrap it with a nylon bag. Put on your socks and go to bed.

You need to repeat this procedure every night before going to bed. After the third treatment the pain will decrease, and after the fifth the pain will be gone. However you must repeat the procedure for 10 days.

  1. A medicinal tincture with aspirin

For this treatment you will need 10 tablets of aspirin (200 mg).Chopped them up in powder and pour the min 250 ml of alcohol (or 70% medical alcohol). Let it stay like that for 1-2 days.

Shake the tincture before using it and dip a piece of folded gauze in it. Take this coating and put it on your heel. Wrap your leg with a nylon bag and put on your socks. Leave it to stay like that over the night. In the morning, wash your leg with water, wipe them and apply a greasy cream for feet.

After only 10 treatments your feet and heels will be cleaned from the rough skin and the deposits. Also you can clean or brush your feet with pumice stone, and then apply cream.

This procedure will be also effective if you are having cracks, blisters or bunions and hard deposits on your feet.

According to some people with this tincture can be treated varicose veins. As soon as you massage them, the pain will disappears immediately.

Mosquito ‘lured by body odour genes’

Mosquitoes can spread diseases such as dengue and malaria

The likelihood of being bitten by mosquitoes could be down to genes that control our body odour, a preliminary study in Plos One suggests.

Researchers tested pairs of identical and non-identical twins to see how attractive they were to mosquitoes.

Identical twins were more likely to have similar levels of attractiveness – suggesting shared genetic factors were at play.

The “intriguing” results must now be assessed in larger trials, experts say.

Researchers have long tried to understand what drives mosquitoes to bite certain people more than others. Recent work shows the insects may be lured to their victims by body odour.

And anecdotal reports suggest some relatives are just as likely to be bitten as each other.

Scientists from the UK and US wanted to find out whether genes were behind this phenomenon.

To test their theory they enlisted 19 non-identical and 18 identical pairs of twins in a pilot study.

Mosquitoes seem to have a preference for which humans they bite
Identical and non-identical female twins took part in the study

In a series of experiments each twin placed one hand at an end of a Y-shaped wind tunnel as air was pumped through, carrying odour with it.

Swarms of mosquitoes were then released and moved towards or away from each twin’s hand.

For identical twins – who share much of their genetic material – there was an even distribution of mosquitoes in both sections.

This suggests the insects did not prefer the odour of one hand more than the other.

In contrast, results for the non identical twins – who share fewer genes – were more varied.

Researchers say their works suggests attractiveness to mosquitoes could be caused by inherited body odour genes.

Their next step is to uncover which specific genes may be involved.

Further research is now under way.

‘Bespoke control methods’

Providing an independent comment, Dr David Weetman, lecturer at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said: “This is a novel and intriguing finding.

“It is the first time a genetic basis has been demonstrated.

“But mosquitoes are not just attracted to scent – things like carbon dioxide also play a role.

“Larger studies will help assess how relevant these findings are outside the laboratory where other factors may be important.”

Lead author Dr James Logan, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “If we understand the genetic basis for variation between individuals it could be possible to develop bespoke ways to control mosquitoes better, and develop new ways to repel them.”

Ebola drug cures infected monkeys

An experimental drug has cured monkeys infected with the Ebola virus, US-based scientists have said.

Coloured transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of a number of Ebola viruses

The treatment, known as TKM-Ebola-Guinea, targets the Makona strain of the virus, which caused the current deadly outbreak in West Africa.

All three monkeys receiving the treatment were healthy when the trial ended after 28 days; three untreated monkeys died within nine days.

Scientists cautioned that the drug’s efficacy has not been proven in humans.

At present, there are no treatments or vaccines for Ebola that have been proven to work in humans.

University of Texas scientist Thomas Geisbert, who was the senior author of the study published in the journal Nature, said: “This is the first study to show post-exposure protection… against the new Makona outbreak strain of Ebola-Zaire virus.”

Results from human trials with the drug are expected in the second half of this year.

Gene blocking

Mr Geisbert said the drug, produced by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, could be adapted to target any strain of Ebola and could be manufactured in as little as eight weeks.

It works by blocking particular genes, which stops the virus replicating.

The two-month production time compares with the several months needed to make ZMapp – another experimental drug, which cured monkeys with a different strain of Ebola than the one in the current outbreak.

Since March 2014, more than 10,602 people have been reported as having died from the disease in six countries – Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the US and Mali.

The total number of reported cases is more than 25,556.

It has been the deadliest occurrence of Ebola since its discovery in 1976.

Hope over child malaria vaccine tests

Family affected by malaria in Tanzania
There is no licensed vaccine against malaria anywhere in the world at present

Final clinical trials of a malaria vaccine – the first to reach this stage – suggest it could help protect millions of children against malaria.

But tests on 16,000 children from seven African countries found that booster doses were of limited use and vaccines in young babies were not effective.

After children aged 5-17 months were given three doses of the vaccine, the immunisation was only 46% effective.

But experts say getting the vaccine this far is a scientific milestone.

Data from the trial published in The Lancet showed that the success rate fell to even lower levels in younger infants.

Scientists have been working on the vaccine for more than 20 years, but observers believe there is still a long way to go.

RTS,S/AS01 is the first malaria vaccine to reach advanced trials and show any sign of working in young children.

There is currently no licensed vaccine against malaria anywhere in the world.

With around 1,300 children dying in sub-Saharan Africa from malaria every day, scientists say they are delighted to have got to this stage in developing a vaccine against a very clever parasite.


Prof Brian Greenwood, study author and professor of clinical tropical medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said he was “a little disappointed” by the results of the clinical trials.

“I hoped the vaccine would be more effective, but we were never going to end up with the success seen in measles vaccines with 97% efficacy.”

That is because the malaria parasite has a complicated life cycle and it has learnt how to evade the immune system over hundreds of years.

The vaccinations took place at 11 sites across Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Mosquitoes can spread diseases such as dengue and malaria
The malaria parasite present in mosquitoes is clever and complicated, scientists say

The trials found the vaccine’s ability to protect children gradually waned over time.

Scientists tried to bolster this with a booster, but protection never reached the level provided by initial doses.

The clinical trials also found that meningitis occurred more frequently in children given the vaccine.

However, Prof Greenwood said the data was very robust and the vaccine could still reduce attacks of malaria by around 30%.


The European Medicines Agency will now review the data and, if it is satisfied, the vaccine could be licensed.

And the World Health Organization could then recommend its use in October this year.

Prof Adrian Hill, at the University of Oxford, said although the study was “a milestone”, he had concerns.

“Because the vaccine’s efficacy is so short-lived, as expected a booster dose is shown to be of some value – but it was not as effective at the initial doses.

“More worrying is the new evidence of a rebound in malaria susceptibility: after 20 months, vaccinated children who were not boosted showed an increased risk of severe malaria over the next 27 months compared to non-vaccinated controls.”

Overall, he said the vaccine’s potential public health benefits were not yet clear.

“It should be possible to make the vaccine more effective in some settings, but that will probably increase delivery costs substantially.”

‘Important tool’

Prof Mike Turner, head of infection at the Wellcome Trust, said it had taken two decades to get to this point.

“While the levels of protection the vaccine offers against clinical malaria may seem relatively low, they are better than any other potential vaccine we currently have.

“The findings are not only important in their own right but also in signposting a road to developing better vaccines in the future.”

James Whiting, from the charity Malaria No More UK, said it was a huge achievement to get the vaccine this far.

“There are still a number of considerations and approval processes to be undertaken, but it has the potential to be an important additional tool to fight malaria and save lives from a disease that kills a child every minute.”

Other experts warned that funding for a vaccine should not be redirected away from insect nets and other malaria control measures.

Bees ‘get a buzz’ from pesticides


Neonicotinoids target the same mechanisms in the brain affected by nicotine in the human brain
Neonicotinoids target the same mechanisms in the bee brain affected by nicotine in the human brain

Bees prefer food containing neonicotinoid pesticides, research suggests.

They may “get a buzz” from the nicotine-like chemicals in the same way smokers crave cigarettes, according to scientists at Newcastle University.

The experiments raise the question of whether bees can be exposed to harmful doses of pesticides because they are attracted to the chemicals.

Another study found neonicotinoids had a negative effect on bees in the wild.

The Crop Protection Association, which represents pesticide producers, questioned the findings of the studies, published in the journal, Nature.

Scientific controversy

Bees are in decline in Europe and North America due to a number of factors, including pesticides, habitat loss and diseases.

In 2013, the EU imposed a two-year ban on using three neonicotinoid pesticides on flowering crops amid concern about their effects on bees.

Neonicotinoids contain synthetic chemicals similar to nicotine, which as a plant toxin is damaging to insects.

Neuroscientists at Newcastle University tested whether honeybees and bumblebees preferred food containing neonicotinoids over untreated food in the laboratory.

They were surprised to find that sugar solution containing two of three neonicotinoid pesticides appeared to be attractive to bees and “may act like a drug” targeting the brain.

“Bees can’t taste neonicotinoids in their food and therefore do not avoid these pesticides,” said lead researcher Prof Geraldine Wright. “This is putting them at risk of poisoning when they eat contaminated nectar.

“Even worse, we now have evidence that bees prefer to eat pesticide-contaminated food. Neonicotinoids target the same mechanisms in the bee brain that are affected by nicotine in the human brain.”

The next step is to study whether bees can become addicted to the substances, Prof Wright added.

“As soon as it gets into their blood they’re getting a little buzz, as it were, and they’re responding to that… We don’t have any evidence that it’s addictive, but it could be.”

A field study found harmful effects on the solitary bee
A field study found harmful effects on the solitary bee
The field study found no significant effect on honeybees
…but no significant effect on honeybees

Commenting on the research, Dr Christopher Connolly of the University of Dundee said it would be interesting to find out if insects “become addicted to neonicotinoids over time as humans become addicted to nicotine”.

“Given that the neonicotinoids are commonly found in our farmed environment at these levels, this may have already occurred.”

EU moratorium

Scientific evidence over the impact of neonicotinoids has proved controversial, with debate over the relevance of laboratory studies and whether there is strong enough evidence to justify a ban.

There have been few field trials on wild bees and the results of these are disputed.

In an attempt to resolve the arguments, Dr Maj Rundlof from Lund University looked at the effects of neonicotinoids on wild bees and honeybees foraging on farmland in Sweden.

Half of oilseed rape fields were sown with seeds coated in neonicotinoids; while the other half were left untreated.

Half the number of wild bumblebees and solitary bees were found in oilseed rape fields treated with pesticides.

Bumblebee colonies stopped growing where the chemicals were present, with reduced reproduction observed in solitary bees and bumblebees. Significant effects were not found in honeybees.

Renewed debate

Prof Simon Potts of the University of Reading said the research suggests an interim ban on the use of neonicotinoids is justified but leaves regulators with a “huge conundrum”.

“A return to old-fashioned products sprayed against pests could be disastrous for pollinators, but the other options available to European agriculture, such as natural pest management, would lead to lower yields in the short term and a big increase in food prices.”

Nick von Westenholz, CEO of the Crop Protection Association, which represents neonicotinoid producers, questioned the latest research.

“The latest studies in Nature must be seen in the context of ongoing campaign to discredit neonicotinoid pesticides, regardless of what the real evidence shows,” he said.

The UK government enforces the moratorium but has publicly stated it does not support it.

A spokesperson from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The EU will be reviewing the evidence on the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators. Until this work is complete, the current restrictions remain in place.”

Tinnitus mapped inside human brain


man touching ear
About 1% of adults in the UK have tinnitus that is severe enough to affect their quality of life

For the first time, signals relating to the constant ringing noise of tinnitus have been mapped across the brain of a patient undergoing surgery.

In this rare case, a man with tinnitus was being monitored to trace his epileptic seizures, with 164 electrodes placed directly onto his brain.

Researchers compared brain activity when his tinnitus was loud, with periods when it was quiet.

They spotted differences spread over a surprisingly wide set of brain areas.

The study appears in the journal Current Biology.

Tinnitus, the constant presence of phantom sounds, affects around 10% of adults in the UK; for 1% it is severe enough to affect their quality of life. Often it takes the form of a ringing sound, but it can be anything from a roar to a hiss.

In many cases it begins with partial hearing loss, sometimes due to loud noise wearing out the hair cells that convert sound waves into neural signals, inside the inner ear. The brain adjusts to that loss of input by boosting certain types of activity, creating the impression of a noise that nobody else can hear.

Precious opportunity

Previous efforts to pinpoint those changes within the brain have used scanning techniques (such as fMRI), which are much less precise than the electrodes used in the new study. Others have used models of tinnitus in laboratory animals.

Only one other team has recorded directly from inside the brain of a human tinnitus sufferer; that study was part of an effort to treat tinnitus itself with surgery, and involved just four electrodes.

These much more extensive recordings were a fortunate coincidence.

“It is such a rarity that a person requiring invasive electrode monitoring for epilepsy also has tinnitus, that we aim to study every such person if they are willing,” said Dr Phillip Gander, from the University of Iowa in the US.

The patient concerned was a 50-year-old man with intractable epilepsy. To try and find the source of his seizures, electrodes were implanted across his left hemisphere for two weeks, ahead of surgery to try and eliminate them.

brain recordings illustration
Coloured circles show where the strength of various different rhythms of brain activity correlated with the strength of the tinnitus the patient was hearing

At the heart of the study is a method for manipulating tinnitus, called “residual inhibition”. On 60 occasions over the course of two days, researchers played their subject a 30-second burst of noise on headphones. About half the time, the man’s tinnitus – in his case a constant, high-pitched ringing – was quiet in the period immediately following the noise.

“Once we had that contrast between the normal tinnitus and the suppressed tinnitus trials… we could compare the brain activity between those two states,” said co-author William Sedley, a doctor and neuroscientist at Newcastle University. This comparison revealed traces of the tinnitus within the man’s brain.

Specifically, the researchers mapped out particular “oscillations” – rhythmic brain waves caused by many neurons firing in synchrony – that were linked to the tinnitus.

“Rather than just a small area of auditory cortex… we found that these correlates of tinnitus were present throughout a huge proportion of the brain areas we sampled,” Dr Sedley told BBC News.

Revising strategies

Some earlier work has also suggested that a widespread network is involved in tinnitus, including brain areas outside those “auditory” sections that we know are involved in hearing. But this is the first time the abnormal activity of that network has been plotted in such detail.

The scientists emphasised that this is only one tinnitus patient, and the condition can vary.

“It would be nice to get a few more cases as they come along, if they do, to try and compare them and see commonalities and differences,” Dr Sedley explained.

But the confirmation of a broad pattern of underlying brain activity is important, he said.

“A number of models – and therefore treatment approaches – have aimed to pinpoint a particular part of the auditory cortex, that relates to the frequency being heard, either by targeting it physically in the brain, or with sounds at that frequency.

“But our results suggest that… it’s a much wider part of the auditory cortex, and the brain, that’s implicated in tinnitus, So these strategies might have to be revised or reconsidered a bit.”

hair cells in the ear
Tinnitus often begins with hearing loss, caused by damage to hair cells in the inner ear

Prof Andrew King, an auditory neuroscientist at Oxford University, said the results were a “huge step up” in terms of tracing the detailed underpinnings of tinnitus, particularly compared to brain imaging. But like the authors, he emphasised that this is a single case study and that tinnitus is “highly variable” between individuals.

“There are a lot of animal studies which look at what happens to individual neurons… but human work has largely been limited to fMRI,” he said.

“So this provides a step in between. It provides much higher resolution information about the changes that take place in the brain – albeit of this one individual – whilst tinnitus is being perceived.”

Prof King agreed that the findings were a striking confirmation of the idea that tinnitus is not a simple product of changes within the hearing pathway.

“In order to reach the level of conscious perception, there are other areas involved,” he said.