UI study is anything but music to tinnitus sufferers' ears

UI study is anything but music to tinnitus sufferers' ears

CHAMPAIGN — Tinnitus, a condition of hearing phantom ringing and clicking sounds, plagues millions of older adults.

Some people experience tinnitus more severely than others, though, and new research at the University of Illinois suggests that's associated with certain changes in brain connections that cause the brain to pay attention more and rest less.

"We have an explanation why you have concentration difficulties when you have tinnitus and why these difficulties may increase for some people as they report more bothersome symptoms," said study leader Fatima Husain, a UI speech and hearing science professor.

Specifically, the researchers used MRI scans to look for patterns in the brains of tinnitus sufferers, focusing on a region of the brain called the precuneus and its connections with two networks in the brain — one that is active when people are paying attention to something and one that is active when people aren't engaged in a task and the brain is at rest.

For people with more long-term tinnitus, researchers found an increased connection between the pre-cuneus to the dorsal attention network and decreased connection to the (at rest) default mode network, "with more bothersome tinnitus demonstrating stronger decreases," according to the study.

Similar connections weren't observed in people with more mild symptoms and those for whom tinnitus began in the past 6 to 12 months.

"If they are more bothered by it, they're paying more attention to it all the time," Husain said. "They cannot be at rest. They're not experiencing silence very well. They're bothered by it. Their attention keeps being grabbed by it, and the flip side of it is it's exhausting."

Tinnitus affects nearly 50 million Americans, mostly older adults and people who have served in the military. It's believed to be caused mostly by such factors as hearing loss and noise exposure.

"It's the number-one disability that the VA is paying, currently," Husain said.

Husain said tinnitus has been an understudied problem.

"And I think, personally, it is understudied because it is very hard to wrap your mind around an illusion," she said.

Further complicating the study of tinnitus is the variation in reactions people have to it, Husain said. Some accept that they're hearing these noises in their head, adjust and move on, and some are much more bothered.

Since there isn't a cure for tinnitus, patients are generally advised about ways to manage the condition — using hearing aids and trying techniques to reduce the contrast between external and internal sounds, Husain said.

For example, people don't tend to notice a candle burning in a brightly-lighted room as much as they do in a darkened room, she said.

"Management is trying to reduce the contrast, or we train you not to pay attention to it," Husain said.

Still, about 20 to 30 percent of people with tinnitus are affected so much it begins to affect their lives, depriving them of sleep and driving them away from activities they once enjoyed, Husain said. One of her patients stopped going to hear performances of the classical music she loves because she was so bothered by the sound of the applause.

Husain said her tinnitus research is continuing. A website at acnlab.com includes information about participating in her studies.

Meanwhile, Husain advises people with tinnitus to take advantage of the tuning-out techniques that are available.

"People can actually condition themselves to be bothered less," she said.

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