Ring the alarm!

by YPU Admin on February 7, 2014. Tags: Audiology, PhD, and Research


My name is Hannah Brotherton and I am a second year PhD student in Audiology. After finishing my A Levels in 2007, I studied Biomedical Science-Neuroscience for my first degree at University. I then did a Masters in Research of Biomedical Sciences Neuroscience in 2010, followed by another Masters in Abnormal and Clinical Psychology in 2011. In 2013, I began a PhD in audiology at the University of Manchester.

My PhD involves investigating a mechanism in the brain that may be involved in the development of tinnitus, also known as ‘ringing of the ears’. The majority of individuals that suffer from tinnitus usually have a hearing loss which causes less sound to reach the brain. The mechanism tries to compensate for the hearing loss by turning the ‘volume up’ and increasing the brain activity. A side effect of this over-amplification of brain activity is tinnitus.  

In Depth

What is tinnitus? Tinnitus comes from the latin word ‘tinnure’ meaning ‘to ring’. It is a hearing related condition where the sufferer hears a buzzing in their ears when no actual sound is present. The ringing can take the form of a high-pitched whining, electric buzzing, hissing, humming, tinging or a whistling sound. It has also been described as a ‘whooshing’ sound. For some, tinnitus can come and go, but for others it can be persistent and can cause a great deal of distress.

What do we think causes tinnitus?

There are many theories regarding the development of tinnitus. One theory is there is a mechanism in our brain that when a hearing loss is present, increases the brain activity which can be heard by the individual. 

Our brains are extremely ‘plastic’, which means the brain is able to adapt to any changes in the environment. For example, if the brain is damaged because of a head injury, it will adapt its function to try and compensate for the damage. This also happens when a person has a hearing loss because less sound than normal is reaching the brain, causing the brain to adapt and compensate for this change in function. A mechanism in the brain tries to compensate for the hearing loss by turning the ‘volume up’ i.e. increasing the brain activity.  However, a consequence of this ‘over-amplification’ of brain activity is that it can be heard by the person as a ‘ringing’ sound, which causes the condition tinnitus.

What do I investigate?

My aim is to understand this mechanism in more detail. I do this by getting normal hearing individuals to wear an earplug. The earplug simulates the hearing loss and the mechanism increases the brain activity to compensate for less sound reaching the brain. I measure a reflex of the muscles in the ears that reflects changes in brain activity.

When these participants remove the earplug at the end of the study, this mechanism detects there are normal levels of sound now reaching the brain again and the brain activity returns to normal. If more is understood about where and how this mechanism works, it might be possible to target this mechanism and reduce the brain activity as a treatment for tinnitus. Therefore, it is exciting to be part of research that could lead to an improvement in other people’s lives.

Going Further

You can visit this great website that introduces you to the basics of hearing.

To find out more about audiology and what the course involves, click here.

If you are interested in finding out about other research we do, have a look at this.

Also, have a look at a previous Young Person University blog about Audiology.

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