Hearing management

Updated 15 August 2016

Tinnitus: why the ringing in your ears may be hard to treat

Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears is associated with a wide range of brain activity which is why the condition can be difficult to treat.

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Tinnitus is associated with surprisingly wide-ranging brain activity, researchers report, and this may be why the hearing disorder is hard to treat.

About one in five people have tinnitus, which is the sensation of a steady ringing or buzzing in the ears.

The study included a 50-year-old man who suffered tinnitus in both ears, in association with hearing loss. Researchers monitored his brain activity when his tinnitus was stronger and weaker.

The results revealed that tinnitus causes markedly different brain activity than normal external sounds picked up by the ears, according to the study published April 23 in the journal Current Biology.

"Perhaps the most remarkable finding was that activity directly linked to tinnitus was very extensive, and spanned a large proportion of the part of the brain we measured from," study co-author Will Sedley, of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, said in a journal news release.

"In contrast, the brain responses to a sound we played that mimicked [the man's] tinnitus were localised to just a tiny area," he added.

Activity associated with tinnitus was seen in nearly all of the auditory cortex, along with other parts of the brain, the investigators found.

Watch: What is tinnitus and is it caused by exposure to loud noises?

The findings help explain why it's so difficult to treat tinnitus, and may lead to new therapies, the researchers added.

"We now know that tinnitus is represented very differently in the brain to normal sounds, even ones that sound the same, and therefore these cannot necessarily be used as the basis for understanding tinnitus or targeting treatment," Sedley said.

According to study co-author Phillip Gander, from the University of Iowa, "The sheer amount of the brain across which the tinnitus network is present suggests that tinnitus may not simply 'fill in' the 'gap' left by hearing damage, but also actively infiltrates beyond this into wider brain systems."

Read more:

10 tinnitus facts

Could your cellphone give you tinnitus?

A visual guide to tinnitus

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Francis Slabber is a Speech & Language Therapist and Audiologist who has owned and run The Hearing Clinic in Wynberg, Cape Town for the last 17 years. Francis and her team have extensive experience in fitting and supplying hearing aids as well as assistive living devices. Francis has served as the Western Cape Chairperson for the South African Association of Audiologists for three years and has given many talks on the topic of hearing loss and amplification. The Hearing Clinic has a special interest in adult and geriatric hearing impairment, hearing aid fittings and hearing rehabilitation.

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