New study reveals link between tinnitus severity and emotion processing in the brain

Tinnitus, otherwise known as ringing in the ears, affects nearly one-third of adults over age 65. The condition can develop as part of age-related hearing loss or from a traumatic injury. In either case, the resulting persistent noise causes varying amounts of disruption to everyday life.

While some tinnitus patients adapt to the condition, many others are forced to limit daily activities as a direct result of their symptoms. A new study reveals that people who are less bothered by their tinnitus use different brain regions when processing emotional information.

"We are trying to understand how the brain adapts to having tinnitus for a very long time," said Fatima Husain, University of Illinois speech and hearing science and neuroscience professor who conducted the research with kinesiology and community health professor Edward McAuley and neuroscience graduate students Jake Carpenter-Thompson and Sara Schmidt. Husain also is affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. Carpenter-Thompson is lead author on the paper, which is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Husain's research uses functional magnetic resonance imaging, an imaging tool that enables researchers to see changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain during an activity.

Using fMRI, Husain's team previously compared how the brain processes emotion in patients with mild tinnitus and people without the condition. While in the scanner, study participants listened to and rated pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sounds (e.g. kids giggling, babies crying and people babbling in the background). The researchers reported that, in contrast to those without tinnitus, patients with mild tinnitus showed greater engagement of different areas in the brain when processing emotional sounds.

To further understand this altered brain activation, Husain conducted a new fMRI study to see if there were any differences among tinnitus patients. Because some patients adjust to the ringing in the ears while others do not, the severity of the condition can vary greatly. Husain's team measured the severity of tinnitus, or tinnitus distress, with a series of surveys and questionnaires assessing hearing, attention, emotion and sleep.

Patients with lower tinnitus distress used an altered pathway to process emotional information. The path did not rely on the amygdala, commonly believed to play an important role in emotion processing in the brain. Instead, patients who had adapted to their tinnitus symptoms used more of the brain's frontal lobe, a region critical for attention, planning and impulse control. The researchers suggested that the greater activation of the frontal lobe might be helping to control emotional responses and reduce tinnitus distress.

Another aim of Husain's research was to evaluate possible interventions to help patients reduce tinnitus distress. The study reported that physical activity might influence emotion processing and help to improve quality of life of those bothered by tinnitus. Husain hopes more research will investigate this link. Her future research on the topic will also include active duty service members, a group highly affected by trauma-induced, early-onset tinnitus.


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


  1. Karen Lupinetti Karen Lupinetti United States says:

    I've been suffering from severe tinnitus for over three months. Although it seems like a relatively short time compared to what I've read, waking up at 4:00 in the morning isn't a picnic no matter what you have to do during the day.  I did my research and found that taking Lipo-Flavonoid would help, and it did for a short time.

    Reading here that more physical activity sometimes helps is good news as I've been pretty lethargic since I got a flu shot in September, then was violently ill.

    Any ideas will be welcome!

    • Prikazsky Vladimir Prikazsky Vladimir Sweden says:

      I have tinnitus since 2-3 year.. that I realises. An explanation was that I have sclerotic vessels and the flow of blood in the inneer ear in the rigid tube makes that noise.. its perception. Taking flavonoids is consistent with possible reduction of sclerotic plates in the vessels. Maybe it shloud help further. And phisical activity helps to control sclerotisation and makes you also good mood I can enjoy music very much..

  2. Pam Busby Graham Pam Busby Graham United States says:

    I developed tinnitus when I had a bacterial or viral infection in 2010. I was informed at that time I had hearing loss in my left ear as a result of the infection and given a prescription for a hearing aid. The tinnitus is 24/7, non-stop. The sound pulsates consistently with my heart beat.  Doctors cannot tell me why this is or the reason for my tinnitus. If I do purchase a hearing aid (which costs a lot and the health insurance does not cover the cost) will it make the tinnitus worse or better? Any suggestions?

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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