Tinnitus Is the Result of the Brain Trying, but Failing, to Repair Itself

Tinnitus appears to be produced by an unfortunate confluence of structural and functional changes in the brain, say neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC).

The phantom ringing sounds heard by about 40 million people in the U.S. today are caused by brains that try, but fail to protect their human hosts against overwhelming auditory stimuli, the researchers say in the January 13th issue of Neuron. They add that the same process may be responsible for chronic pain and other perceptual disorders.

The researchers say that the absence of sound caused by hearing loss in certain frequencies, due to normal aging, loud-noise exposure, or to an accident, forces the brain to produce sounds to replace what is now missing. But when the brain’s limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions and other functions, fails to stop these sounds from reaching conscious auditory processing, tinnitus results.

"We believe that a dysregulation of the limbic and auditory networks may be at the heart of chronic tinnitus," says the study’s lead investigator, Josef P. Rauschecker, PhD, a neuroscientist. "A complete understanding and ultimate cure of tinnitus may depend on a detailed understanding of the nature and basis of this dysregulation."

Tinnitus isn’t curable, although antidepressants appear to help some patients, as does the use of masking noise to diminish focus on the ringing sensations.

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