A recent study out of the University of Illinois revealed not only that those who have tinnitus (a perception of ringing or buzzing in the ears) process emotional sounds differently than those who do not have tinnitus, but also that among those who have tinnitus, there are significant differences in which regions of the brain are used when processing emotions.

Researchers first looked at the brain activity of those with tinnitus versus those without using functional MRI. During fMRI, the participants in the study were exposed to 30 “pleasant” sounds, 30 “unpleasant” sounds and 30 “neutral” sounds. The results of the fMRIs showed those with tinnitus had greater engagement in different areas of the brain when exposed to emotion-triggering sounds than those without tinnitus.

As a result, the researchers took the next step: comparing the brain activity of patients with tinnitus to each other, the only difference between subjects being varying degrees of severity of tinnitus.

The second round of fMRI revealed to researchers that those with less severe tinnitus actually used a different pathway to process emotional information.

While conventional wisdom says the part of the brain known as the amygdala is the key to emotional processing, the patients who weren’t as bothered by tinnitus used more of the brain’s frontal lobe to process emotions. The heightened activity in the frontal lobe was notable because the frontal lobe is typically used more for attention, planning and impulse control. The takeaway for the researchers was that greater activation of the frontal lobe helped control emotional responses and reduce tinnitus stress, which could have far-reaching implications on possible therapies for tinnitus sufferers such as both active and former military members that are disproportionately affected by tinnitus.

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