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Hear Res. 2009 Sep;255(1-2):1-13. doi: 10.1016/j.heares.2009.06.009. Epub 2009 Jun 21.

Neural activity underlying tinnitus generation: results from PET and fMRI.

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  • 1Department of Otorhinolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery, University Medical Center Groningen, The Netherlands.


Tinnitus is the percept of sound that is not related to an acoustic source outside the body. For many forms of tinnitus, mechanisms in the central nervous system are believed to play an important role in the pathology. Specifically, three mechanisms have been proposed to underlie tinnitus: (1) changes in the level of spontaneous neural activity in the central auditory system, (2) changes in the temporal pattern of neural activity, and (3) reorganization of tonotopic maps. The neuroimaging methods fMRI and PET measure signals that presumably reflect the firing rates of multiple neurons and are assumed to be sensitive to changes in the level of neural activity. There are two basic paradigms that have been applied in functional neuroimaging of tinnitus. Firstly, sound-evoked responses as well as steady state neural activity have been measured to compare tinnitus patients to healthy controls. Secondly, paradigms that involve modulation of tinnitus by a controlled stimulus allow for a within-subject comparison that identifies neural activity that may be correlated to the tinnitus percept. Even though there are many differences across studies, the general trend emerging from the neuroimaging studies, is that tinnitus in humans may correspond to enhanced neural activity across several centers of the central auditory system. Also, neural activity in non-auditory areas including the frontal areas, the limbic system and the cerebellum seems associated with the perception of tinnitus. These results indicate that in addition to the auditory system, non-auditory systems may represent a neural correlate of tinnitus. Although the currently published neuroimaging studies typically show a correspondence between tinnitus and enhanced neural activity, it will be important to perform future studies on subject groups that are closely matched for characteristics such as age, gender and hearing loss in order to rule out the contribution of these factors to the abnormalities specifically ascribed to tinnitus.

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