Good News for Sufferers of Tinnitus

24 March 2002


Tinnitus sufferers are tortured by continuous buzzing or ringing noises in their ears, even when they are experiencing total silence, and the sounds cannot be blocked out. Most people experience the problem at some time in their lives, usually after prolonged exposure to loud machinery, or music, and in these instances the problem usually goes away by itself, once the source of loud noise is removed, over the ensuing hours or days. But for 5% of people the problem becomes chronic and debilitating. Researchers have recently begun to scan the brains of tinnitus sufferers and, surprisingly, have found that the part of the brain that responds to frequencies corresponding to the rogue sounds are disproportionally large compared with the area devoted to hearing other frequencies. A similar distorsion effect is seen in the part of the brain controlling the lost limbs in amputee patients. In this situation the area of the brain representing the lost limb seems to change allegiance so that it begins to respond to other, still intact, parts of the body instead. Many such patients report that they can still feel their lost limb, although the sensations they experience, which are often painful, are derived from other parts of the body, and this experience is described as 'phantom limb syndrome'. Experts at Heidelberg's Central Institute of Mental Health have speculated that tinnitus is the phantom limb pain of the auditory system and therefore might be amenable to the same drug treatment used for the control of phantom limb syndrome after amputation.


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