Soldiers screened for potential vulnerability to tinnitus

March 29, 2011 By Julia Evangelou Strait, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis
U.S. ARMY

(PhysOrg.com) -- Hearing loss is common for soldiers coming home from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, but another perhaps equally vexing problem is a condition that causes them to hear sound that isn't there.

is the perception of sound that isn’t really present in the environment. It’s a phantom noise,” says Jay Piccirillo, MD, professor of otolaryngology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Tinnitus has become quite a problem for the military. Improvised explosive devices can cause acoustic trauma, closed-head injury and traumatic brain injury, leading to , dizziness and tinnitus.”

With support from the U.S. Department of Defense, Piccirillo and colleagues at Washington University will use MRI scans to look for preexisting vulnerabilities in the brain’s cortical neural networks that are associated with the development of tinnitus in active-duty military personnel. Researchers hope to identify differences in brain activity that will aid development of preventive strategies to alleviate the effects of tinnitus.

“Through cognitive testing, we’ve known for many years that people with bothersome tinnitus have problems with concentration, memory, attention and other neurocognitive functions,” Piccirillo says.

Piccirillo and his neurobiology colleagues have found evidence that MRI scans of the brains of patients with tinnitus differ in important ways from the brain scans of persons without tinnitus. They found major differences in a variety of neural networks responsible for hearing, vision, sensation and short-term memory, among others.

“It really set the light bulb off for us to see that tinnitus isn’t just the perception of noise; it’s all of these cortical derangements,” Piccirillo says. “It’s almost as if the auditory center has hijacked other parts of the brain, causing it to focus too much on the noise.”

Now researchers wonder if tinnitus patients’ brains behaved abnormally before they began to experience phantom noise.

“We don’t know what these tinnitus patients’ brains looked like before they were tinnitus patients," Piccirillo says. “Were the differences there beforehand? Or are they a result of the tinnitus?”

To help answer that question, Piccirillo and colleagues will perform brain scans and cognitive tests on 200 before they are deployed to an active combat zone.

“Before they go, they are healthy soldiers,” Piccirillo says. “But what we know from these wars is that 20 to 40 percent of them come back with a variety of problems, including tinnitus. Within nine months of their return from deployment, we’ll bring them back to do the exact same tests.”

Surprisingly, tinnitus is not always associated with physical injury to the ear or head.

“There are environmental, emotional and psychological triggers that can lead to tinnitus," Piccirillo says. “A person could have an emotional trauma, such as the death of a loved one, and then start experiencing tinnitus. Some people view tinnitus as just one of a spectrum of traumatic stress disorders, which are particularly relevant to active-duty soldiers.”

If they do identify a subset of soldiers who are vulnerable, Piccirillo says it may provide an opportunity to develop therapies that reduce the impact of tinnitus.

For now, there is no active therapy for treating or preventing tinnitus. But according to Piccirillo, cognitive and behavioral therapy can be helpful in redirecting the patient’s attention away from the sound.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Spare parts from small parts: Novel scaffolds to grow muscle

February 20, 2018
Australian biomedical engineers have successfully produced a 3D material that mimics nature to transform cells into muscle.

Clues to obesity's roots found in brain's quality control process

February 20, 2018
Deep in the middle of our heads lies a tiny nub of nerve cells that play a key role in how hungry we feel, how much we eat, and how much weight we gain.

Study looks at how newly discovered gene helps grow blood vessels

February 19, 2018
A new study published today found that a newly discovered gene helps grow blood vessels when it senses inadequate blood flow to tissues.

Scientists produce human intestinal lining that re-creates living tissue inside organ-chip

February 16, 2018
Investigators have demonstrated how cells of a human intestinal lining created outside an individual's body mirror living tissue when placed inside microengineered Intestine-Chips, opening the door to personalized testing ...

Data wave hits health care

February 16, 2018
Technology used by Facebook, Google and Amazon to turn spoken language into text, recognize faces and target advertising could help doctors fight one of the deadliest infections in American hospitals.

Researcher explains how statistics, neuroscience improve anesthesiology

February 16, 2018
It's intuitive that anesthesia operates in the brain, but the standard protocol among anesthesiologists when monitoring and dosing patients during surgery is to rely on indirect signs of arousal like movement, and changes ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.