Brain network provides hope for tinnitus sufferers

As Brain Awareness Week (12–18 March) gets underway in the UK, the preliminary findings from the latest tinnitus research suggest that hearing aids might help tinnitus sufferers; research is ongoing into the role the brain has, and how tinnitus symptoms are reflected in brain network activity.

Anecdotal evidence has persisted for years that hearing aids can help reduce tinnitus symptoms, but the preliminary findings from this research conducted jointly between researchers in the UK and USA, funded by Deafness Research UK, promises the first hard evidence of this in action.

Dr Phillip Gander and his team at the National Biomedical Research Unit in Hearing, Nottingham, have found that six months of NHS hearing aid usage reduced the severity of tinnitus among sufferers. While this research, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), is ongoing, it is the first tangible evidence of the role of the brain in causing tinnitus symptoms, and the potential role of the brain in alleviating symptoms possibly of its own making.

“These initial findings are very encouraging,” said Deafness Research UK advisor Dr Phillip Gander, at the NIHR National Biomedical Research Unit in Hearing. “Hearing aids do seem to be helping the sufferers we have been studying; but this is only the first stage of our research. We are now trying to understand how this benefit may be reflected in brain network activity.”

“Dr Gander’s latest research is extremely encouraging and potentially offers hope for millions of tinnitus sufferers in the UK,” said Vivienne Michael, Chief Executive of Deafness Research UK. “We have been funding research into tinnitus for many years and the role of the brain in hearing health conditions is cropping up increasingly. Clearly more research is going to be needed in the role of the brain. As part of the problem, it must also be part of any permanent solution and cure for deafness and tinnitus.”                               

Up to 80% of the brain’s energy budget is used during ‘rest’ and Dr Gander and his team is hoping to understand the function of this intrinsic brain activity in health and disease. “Several theories have linked chronic tinnitus to an abnormal pattern of brain activity during a resting state of spontaneous cognitive reflection,” explained Dr Gander. “Our work tries to understand the physiological basis of this condition.”

Dr Gander’s team is acquiring spatially sensitive human brain imaging (fMRI) to better understand the patterns and connections between areas in the brain – areas that may be directly linked to Tinnitus. The prestigious Pauline Ashley prize awarded by Deafness Research UK enabled the researchers to visit a major US laboratory to develop the novel techniques required for the analysis of this new data.

“In collaboration with Professor Fatima Husain at the University of Illinois, we have learned how to identify common ‘resting state networks’ across the brain,” added Dr Gander. “We are now comparing these brain patterns between people with and without tinnitus and between people with different severity of tinnitus distress. Ultimately, this should allow us to see how various treatments (such as hearing aids) may influence that brain activity over time.”

The research will help address whether connectivity between different brain regions in the resting state network is disordered in people with tinnitus and equally importantly, what effect symptom severity has on inter-regional brain connectivity.

By using treatments, such as hearing aids, the researchers can address which people become less bothered by tinnitus and how that relates to their underlying brain activity. When the current research is concluded, the results will provide a neurophysical understanding of what maintains chronic tinnitus. Armed with this new understanding should enable tailored treatments to be targeted to those patients who stand to gain the most benefit.

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Pharmacology/ Therapeutics


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