Tinnitus is a common condition that causes a ringing or buzzing sound in the ears. Tinnitus can develop suddenly with no apparent cause, or can be the result of being exposed to a loud noise. Tinnitus can also occur after repeated injuries or chronic noise exposure. Regardless of the cause, tinnitus appears to affect more than just hearing.
Research has shown that there is a significant link between depression, mood, anxiety, and tinnitus. For a large number of people with tinnitus, the condition is so disturbing that they seek psychological help. Many people who develop tinnitus will also eventually suffer hearing loss. This physical impairment can result in social withdrawal and isolation, increasing the risk of anxiety or depression.
However, more recent research has suggested other pathways linking psychological conditions and tinnitus. Neurological processes and limbic networks have been shown to be impaired in individuals with depression and anxiety. Likewise, tinnitus has also been shown to have an effect on some of the processes affected by the limbic network, including memory and cognitive functions. This overlap raises several questions. First, does tinnitus affect the same limbic processes as depression and anxiety? Second, does tinnitus directly lead to diminished cognitive functioning? And finally, is tinnitus always comorbid with anxiety?
These were the questions Edward Pace of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Michigan decided to focus on in a recent study. For his study, Pace tested the cognitive, memory, and fear behaviors of 29 adult male rats, some of whom had been exposed to loud noises that were designed to induce tinnitus. The results revealed that none of the rats with tinnitus, nor any with hearing loss, had decreases in memory or learning as a result of the noise exposure. He also found no evidence of anxiety directly resulting from the tinnitus. Yet, most of the rats that had high levels of anxiety also had tinnitus. Pace added, “Other behavioral assessments may be needed to further define the relationship between tinnitus and anxiety, cognitive deficits, and other impairments.” Until that time, this research offers some evidence that not all people with tinnitus will also experience anxiety.
Pace, E., Zhang, J. (2013). Noise-induced tinnitus using individualized gap detection analysis and its relationship with hyperacusis, anxiety, and spatial cognition. PLoS ONE 8(9): e75011. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075011
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