Every day your brain automatically tunes out distracting or disturbing sounds, but what if your brain is responsible for these annoying sounds? New evidence suggests that tinnitus--phantom buzzing, whistling, and whining sounds--is due to a broken gateway within the brain.
Tinnitus is sound without a noise present just as some chronic pain is sensation with no physical source. And, it turns out, both of these conditions could be related to problems within the limbic system of the brain.
The limbic system is responsible for your moods, but it also plays a part in regulating sensory information. Part of the limbic system serves as a gateway that--like a bouncer at your favorite club--assesses the worthiness of a sound or sensation before it lets it pass on to the inner sanctum AKA your conscious brain. So it would make sense that if this is broken, via a decrease in brain matter, unwanted sounds or sensations are going to enter your mind and get annoying fast.
But wait, if it was just a matter of hearing every little bump in the night passing through the gateway, tinnitus would't be so annoying. It's the fact that the sound is phantom, can't be tuned out with earplugs and is constant, that is annoying. So how does this gatekeeping malfunction create tinnitus when there's no noise present?
Although all the answers aren't in yet, there are a few theories about why a loss of matter in the limbic system contributes to tinnitus. The first is that there was an initial sound and that this sound is on a loop and being replayed by this broken system. This might make sense because according to the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, "Most researchers agree that tinnitus begins as a result of the brain trying to regain the ability to hear the sound frequencies it has lost by turning up the signals of neighboring frequencies."
Ah, so there may be two things happening. Your brain turning up frequencies to try and compensate for hearing loss--and the reason not everyone with hearing loss develops tinnitus--the second a malfunction within the limbic system.
Okay, let's recap. Right now it appears that the hyperactivity of the brain trying to "make up for" hearing loss is coupled with this broken gateway that stops unwanted noises from passing into our consciousness. So it might not be a matter of one system, but a matter of multiple systems working together that could be causing tinnitus.
And, it turns out, the failure of the limbic system to repress unwanted noise and sensations might also be accompanied by an increase in the likelihood of depression. Sheesh. That's enough to depress anyone. But don't give up hope! This is actually good news. This important research suggest a multi pronged therapy might be a real and viable step in finally closing the door on tinnitus.
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