Around 15% of the world’s population suffers from tinnitus, a condition which causes someone to hear a sound (such as ringing or buzzing) without any external source. It’s often associated with hearing loss.
Not only can the condition be annoying for sufferers, it can also have a serious effect on mental health, often causing stress or depression. This is especially the case for patients suffering from tinnitus over months or years.
There’s currently no cure for tinnitus. So finding a way to better manage or treat it could help many millions of people worldwide.
And one area of research that may help us better understand tinnitus is sleep. There are many reasons for this. First, tinnitus is a phantom percept. This is when our brain activity makes us see, hear or smell things that aren’t there. Most people only experience phantom perceptions when they’re asleep. But for people with tinnitus, they hear phantom sounds while they’re awake.
The second reason is because tinnitus alters brain activity, with certain areas of the brain (such as those involved in hearing) potentially being more active than they should be. This may also explain how phantom percepts happen. When we sleep, activity in these same brain areas also changes.
Our recent research review has identified a couple of brain mechanisms that underlie both tinnitus and sleep. Better understanding these mechanisms – and the way the two are connected – could one day help us find ways of managing and treating tinnitus.