The big recent breakthrough is the discovery that tinnitus is centered not in the ears but in the brain itself. And figuring this out is a big step toward a treatment that works, or maybe even a cure.

Tinnitus is neurons “talking to themselves”

Tinnitus is generated by neuron activity in the brain, researchers say.

Tinnitus, that phantom ringing in the ears that affects millions of people, is generated not by the ear, but by neurons firing in the brain, according to a North American research team.

tinnitus “Tinnitus is not generated by processes in the ear, but by changes in the brain when hearing loss occurs,” said one of the researchers, professor emeritus Larry Roberts from the Department of psychology, neuroscience, and behaviour at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada.

Neurons, he said, are meant to talk to each other. When the ear stops talking to them, usually because of hearing loss, they start talking to themselves and this in turn generates the ringing. “The sound is generated by neuron activity.”

Roberts said the conclusion is the result of collaborative work in the past decade, but said many people are not aware it’s the neurons, or changes in the brain, producing tinnitus. Now the question is: how is the noise generated in the brain? “What are the neurons doing, and where are they doing it?” he said. “Our work will assist.”

Might lead to a treatment

Understanding how it happens might lead to finding a treatment. The findings also help scientists understand why tinnitus is such a difficult problem to treat, he added.

About 10 to 12% of all people have some form of tinnitus and about 1 to 2% of the population suffers from severe tinnitus.