Scientists at the University of Iowa have discovered that tinnitus is caused by multiple areas of the brain, and not just the parts of the brain that perceive sound – contradicting the previously accepted theory that tinnitus is caused due to damage to hair cells in the inner ear.
The finding could have a major impact on finding a cure for tinnitus, a condition which has been, until now, notoriously difficult to effectively treat.
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The Iowa scientists, led by Gander, studied the brain waves of a 50-year-old man.
The subject gave them permission to study his tinnitus, using electrodes that had been planted directly into his brain to reduce his epileptic seizures(after doctors cut a four-inch hole in his skull to implant said electrodes).
The findings suggest that tinnitus might not stem simply from an isolated defect in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that perceives sound, but that more of the brain might be involved.
“We found essentially that almost all the hearing parts of the brain are involved,” said Gander.
“Including a number of other areas of the brain related to processing emotion and memory and attention,” he continued.
The researchers used loud sounds to suppress the man’s tinnitus.
By monitoring the patient’s brain waves while his tinnitus was active or silenced, they could identify the brain waves associated with his tinnitus.
“That’s why our paper is a big deal for scientists,” Gander says. “We’re able to say what is specific to the tinnitus itself, as opposed to the distress or lapses of attention they might have because of their tinnitus.”
As this is only the first patient studied, Gander stressed that the results should be interpreted accordingly.
Gander’s discovery might explain why the condition is so resistant to treatment.
“Maybe the reason tinnitus is so treatment-resistant,” Gander says, “is because it’s involved with so many parts of the brain. So any sort of treatment might not be able to knock out one area of that system. You might have to target all of them, which might be very difficult.”