Published in the journal PLOS ONE, a new study titled "Increased frontal response may underlie decreased tinnitus severity" shows that people with ringing ears, otherwise known as tinnitus, adapt differently to the condition because they use different parts of the brain to process emotions, hearing, attention, and sleep.
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About one-third of people over 65 years of age suffer mostly from tinnitus, and it develops from hearing loss related to age or any serious injury. Some people feel so disturbed by the condition to the extent that they cannot concentrate on any daily tasks, while some others find a way to manage themselves.
"We are trying to understand how the brain adapts to having tinnitus for a very long time," said Fatima Husain, a speech and hearing science and neuroscience professor with the University of Illinois. Husain is affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and worked with community health and kinesiology professor Edward McAuley, as well as Jake Carpenter-Thompson and Sara Schmidt, neuroscience graduate students.
The research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor blood oxygen levels in the brain during an activity. With this method, the team analyzed how the brain of tinnitus patients processed emotions and how healthy people without the condition handled emotions.
The patients were asked to listen to pleasant and unpleasant sounds such as babies crying, kids giggling, or people just chatting in the background – with their brain activity monitored during this period. Participants with tinnitus used different parts of their brain to process the sounds while under the scanner, unlike health people.
Further tests on the participants showed that tinnitus patients who adjust to their symptoms reveal results that vary from those who cannot manage the condition due to the severity of their condition. Questionnaires and surveys were used to determine tinnitus distress, or the severity of the condition during sleep, emotion, attention, or hearing.
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The amygdala is linked to emotion processing in the brain, while the frontal lobe of the brain is associated with impulse control, concentration and planning. The researchers found that patients who found it difficult to adjust to their ringing ears while doing other things bypassed their amygdala, but those who could cope with the noises in their ears used their frontal lobe to manage things.