Hearing loss may change brain structure

U. ILLINOIS (US) — Hearing loss may be causing changes in the long-term brain structure of the estimated 50 million people in the United States who suffer from it, a new study shows.

Researchers used two different imaging modalities in studies of people with hearing loss, normal hearing, and those with hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). People in the hearing loss group showed structural changes in their brains.

“This suggests that functional changes due to sensory deprivation may result in long-term structural changes,” says Fatima Husain, a Beckman Institute faculty member at the University of Illinois.

The goal of the study was to investigate structural gray and white matter changes related to tinnitus and hearing loss and try to dissociate them from changes due only to hearing loss. (Credit: Fatima Husain)

“However, in the case of tinnitus, surprisingly, there were few changes to brain structure despite changes to function, suggesting that when sensory deprivation is accompanied by self-generated noise, it may be better at preserving neural tissue.”

Husain and her collaborators on the study measured neuroanatomical changes in gray and white matter in the brains of participants with only bilateral hearing loss (HL), participants who had HL and tinnitus (TIN), and a control group with normal hearing (NH) without tinnitus.

Their study, reported in the journal Brain Research, looked at neuroanatomical alterations associated with hearing loss and tinnitus.

The researchers used structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to examine changes in gray matter, and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), to identify changes in white matter tract orientation. While tinnitus is often accompanied by hearing loss, not everyone with hearing loss experiences tinnitus.

The goal of the study was to investigate structural gray and white matter changes related to tinnitus and hearing loss and try to dissociate them from changes due only to hearing loss.

“We observed that the HL group had the most profound changes in both white and gray matter relative to the other groups,” Husain says. The gray matter decreases seen in the HL group relative to the NH group were in the anterior cingulate, putamen, and middle frontal gyrus.

Two of these regions, the anterior cingulate and frontal cortex, were “also implicated in our companion study that studied functional response of the brain in the same group of subjects and points to involvement of the attention processing network.”

By dissociating the effect of tinnitus from hearing loss, the researchers concluded that “hearing loss rather than tinnitus had the greatest influence on gray and white matter alterations.”

Husain directs the Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience Lab in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science.

More news from the University of Illinois: http://www.beckman.illinois.edu/index.aspx

chat15 Comments


  1. Marsha

    Amazing research!

  2. Linda Ellis

    All I know is that having tinnitus is absolutely the worst medical condition I have had to live with and there seems very little that can be done routing it out of your ears and head that isn’t risky or radical; and of course expensive.


    It may depend from the neuroplastic activity of the acoustic pathways related to the HL and its carachteristics (gravity, etiology, time)

  4. yes

    Linda is right I’d rather choose to be completely deaf than live with tinnitus for the rest of my life.

  5. Linda Ellis

    I get close to that point on many days, especially if the condition is compounded with a migraine headache and/or vertigo.

    I also have TMJ and once you tell an ENT doctor you have TMJ, you are quickly dismissed to see your TMJ specialist. I wear a mouthguard at night and sometimes during the day, but it doesn’t do much to help with the hissing, buzzing and ringing in my ears. My TMJ doctor does say that your jaw also does play a factor with ear issues.

    And, each ear has different sounds in it, and I swear all of the sounds converge at night and it is as if the inside of my head has been taken over by a swarm of bees. I would not want to take the chance being deaf, however, but possibly left with the tinnitus alone and no other outside sounds. I wouldn’t wish this condition on my worst enemy.

  6. Steve Meikle

    All of this proves that scientists are afflicted with terrible tunnel vision. My tinnitus from my menieres is rather mild but that is not the point, clearly they have not suffered from any of this and can only come out with an arcane piece of nonsense that helps no one

  7. Andrea Arnett

    I find this research encouraging. I have had tinnitus for many years and just live with it, and if it protects my brain from changes then I am glad it has some good use. Research has shown that those who are most distressed by tinnitus see it as a threat and so the brain retains a consciousness about it in peoples’ minds. If you don’t perceive it as a threat but as a normal part of your existance as you are, well it’s easier to forget about it and only be aware of it sometimes. I hope the self-generated noise is helping to preserve the neurons.

  8. @andrea

    I agree. I’d rather know that my tinnitus is sustaining my brain structure and neural pathways than knowing that I am losing them and not knowing what the consequences of that loss is. Actually, my tinnitus is such, and I have lived with it so long, that I think that I’d miss it if it weren’t there.

  9. Chuck

    Good and Bad news i have hearing loss and tinnitus my left is almost gone right is the cranking up the amp and the Tinnitus. Thanks for Researching this for us it sure beats no research thou. Thanks.

  10. Liz Daughtrey

    Just to let you know there are some things that can help your Tinnitus. You are right sometimes we can not change the tinnitus in patients but there are some ways that may make it more liveable. One is diet–if you can get away without using salt, eating alot of red meat, cigarettes, cafferine, and acohol this is a benefit and Tinnitus maybe alot less. These are triggers for Tinnitus. . Usually when Tinnitus occurs it is right before a hearing loss or a hearing loss has already taken place. Get to a hearing aid specialist or an audiologist and have a hearing test done. My husband and I are hearing aid specialists and many times we have seen people helped with Tinnitus thru hearing aids. Also if you are having problems sleeping at night turn on a radio, TV or a fan. My husband has a pretty severe case of Tinnitus so he understands how hard and frustrating it can be. He wears hearing aids and it makes it bearable but if he gets off his diet than it becomes worse. Tinnitus can be triggered by High Blood Pressure and Diabetes so make sure you see your physican to see if you are having these health issues too. What is happening with Tinnitus is that hair cells in the Cochlear are standing up looking for a signal and with a hearing loss the circuit is broken so it creates its own signal. Hearing aids complete that circuit so than the hair cells lay down because they have a signal. The same is true when you take your hearing aids off the fan, TV, and Radio can complete the circuit too. Tinnitus is not cureable with drops or pills. It is not a condition that will totally go away but these things I have mention can help it drastically. I have seen it with my husband. If you would like some more information we have a wonderful article we can scan to you. Please email us at gary@arkvalleyhearing.com. I hope this helps someone in need. Warm Regards Liz

  11. Brandon McBride

    Change brain structure…weird. Like many people, I deal with tinnitus issues mostly and mild hearing loss due to loud music.

  12. Carol

    I live with some very odd sounds that I suppose we are all agreeing to call “tintinnitus”, but I have little fondness for that term. I enjoyed reading the comments, however, and agree with the folks that say it’s not a threat, it harms nothing and I have learned to “tune in” to where I’m at when the ringing sounds become louder or softer. There is far too little trust in our bodies.

    By FAR the single most related symptom for myself is simple fatigue. I get tired, ignore the need to sleep—and the ringing goes nuts! lol ~ So, I take the hint and go to sleep. 9 times out of 10, when I wake, POOF, hearing is next to normal.

    There are also esoteric teachings that speak of “the cry of the eagle”, that the high, fine ringing—is actually the Call of Spirit. If only you could slow down, meditate, and LISTEN….you would find the natural path to healing the distracting sound. But, since no one will get rich off of that solution, I won’t go seeking confirmation in the medical journals or laboratories. What can I say? It works for me.

  13. Ralph Blumenthal

    When my tinnitus first began 4 years ago, I almost lost it-I thought my life was over. I stopped drinking coffee, eating chocolate, drinking wine. eating spicy foods, Then, I decided the hell with it and resumed all those things I love. It did NOT influence the tinnitus one way or another. I stopped fearing it. I learned to accept it but not in a negative way. Getting plenty of exercise each day helps, My hearing aid has helped A LOT! I refuse to let it ruin my life! I try not to look for my tinnitus. That is not always easy and, at times, impossible. It’s no fun, at times it is horrible…but if you lose your fear, it can be controlled. Fear is the number one enemy!

  14. Jim Laursen

    Had tinnitus for over 20 years and at times it so hard to under stand people. It has kept me from listing to my one grandson playing his Guitar and many other musical events in my life. Shy away from anything that is loud.

  15. Kathy Disney

    I had SSHL in my left ear 20 months ago. Besides all the noise in my ear, (sounds like I have a large seashell put up to my ear) my brain does not function like it used to. There is a sense of pressure between both ears as well. I wish I could get more information why the hearing loss has affected my brain function and how to get rid of the pressure or fullness feeling in my head.

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