The study, which took place in the US, set out to identify differences between individuals with higher tinnitus distress and those with lower tinnitus distress, and identify regions of the brain to be targeted in future intervention studies for tinnitus. The study also explored the role of physical activity on any observed results between ‘high distress’ and ‘low distress’ groups.
The 32 people in the study were categorized for high/low levels of tinnitus distress and high/low levels of physical activity. Each subject was asked to listen to sounds classified as ‘pleasant,’ ‘neutral’ or ‘unpleasant.’As they listened, their brains were scanned in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.
The results showed that subjects in the ‘high distress’ group used different parts of the brain than the ‘low distress’ group.
When listening to sounds such as children giggling and babies crying, individuals with lower levels of tinnitus distress utilized the frontal regions of the brain (areas associated with impulse control, concentration and planning’). The researchers suggest this was so that they could ‘better control their emotional response’.
The frontal lobe of the brain is associated with impulse control, concentration and planning.
The amygdalae are on each side of the brain and are thought to be a part of the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory.
When listening to the same sounds, individuals in the ‘high distress’ group utilized the amygdala. (This is an area of the brain associated with emotions, survival instincts and memory.)
Both ‘higher physical activity level’ subgroups used the frontal regions more (than the ‘low physical activity level’ subgroups). This suggests that physical activity may contribute to greater engagement of the frontal cortices.
The researchers proposed that the “observed increased frontal response in the ‘low distress’ group is an indication of successful habituation to the tinnitus percept through improved regulation of emotional response.”
Well, these findings supported previous work that demonstrated increased frontal response was associated with ‘top down control over emotional processing.’ This suggests that ‘top down’ mechanisms [within the brain] may be able to control emotional reactions and could, over time, lead to the ability to cope with emotional distress.
So, does that mean there is a light at the end of the tunnel for those of us whose tinnitus causes us high levels of distress? Will further studies reveal that higher levels of physical activity can, over time, somehow get different parts of our brain to respond to emotional distress and, therefore, help us to cope more effectively?
Researchers concluded: “We suggest that future intervention studies focus on changes in the function of limbic and frontal regions when evaluating the efficacy of treatment. Additionally, we recommend further investigation concerning the impact of physical activity level on tinnitus distress.”
I’ll be paying attention to future results that may find an even stronger link between tinnitus and exercise.