Tinnitus and Chronic Pain Share a Common Brain Dysfunction

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iStock

Long after damage has occurred to a person’s hearing, some people still experience persistent tinnitus—the perception of a buzzing, ringing, or hissing sound—that can’t be accounted for by actual sounds. Remarkably, this phenomenon is very similar to bouts of chronic pain that persist after an injury has healed—and sometimes without the precursor of an injury.

Now researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center, in collaboration with Germany’s Technische Universität München, say they've identified a single brain dysfunction that causes both tinnitus and chronic pain. Their study, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, revealed a common cause for these conditions, which affect 50 million (tinnitus) and 76.2 million (chronic pain) Americans alone. 

In a normally functioning brain, neural structures such as the nucleus accumbens, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex act as “gatekeepers” to control noise, pain, and emotional signals and keep them from getting dysfunctional. In people who've suffered hearing loss, “the brain tries to reorganize and make the person hear as well as possible, but the side effect is that tinnitus noise is generated,” says Josef Rauschecker, one of the authors of the study. In people with tinnitus, these gatekeepers don't work as they should, letting through unwanted signals.

Strikingly, says Rauschecker, the brains of people who suffer from tinnitus have similar, measurable neural activity to those who suffer from chronic pain. In both cases this suggests that while there may be no external source of sound or pain—often referred to as “phantom pain”—the brain is receiving signals nonetheless.

“In tinnitus, the sound comes from the structures like the auditory cortex. It signals to the person that it’s a sound,” Rauschecker tells mental_floss. “It’s the same with chronic pain. There’s neuron activity in the brain’s pain system long after the injury has healed.”

Even more intriguing is the fact that those who suffer tinnitus or chronic pain also often suffer from depression or anxiety, says Rauschecker. This may stem from the fact that these brain structures also regulate emotions and interpret sensations. They do so via the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s reward and learning center, using the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.

“The frontal cortex is part of the brain’s executive system—part of the limbic system—which regulates emotions. In tinnitus and chronic pain, we find that when these structures are impaired, there are fewer neurons and hyperactivity in the striatum that controls these emotions,” says Rauschecker. In essence, the brain is no longer able to turn down the volume, or incorrectly overemphasizes the signals, amplifying them and creating noise, pain, depression, or anxiety. 

While researchers don’t yet understand how these neural structures become broken, they are getting closer to understanding how the brain modulates—or fails to modulate—these signals. Now that they've identified the brain structures involved, their next line of research is learning how the neurotransmitters involved, such as glutamate, GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, play a role.

Through a variety of treatments, Rauschecker hopes they can learn to modulate the gatekeepers’ excessive reception and "turn down" signals of noise and pain to normal levels. "The ultimate goal is to get drug treatment and develop something that can mitigate this suffering," he says.

In the meantime, he suggests that we can all limit our potential to develop tinnitus by steering clear of excessively loud noises, or using earplugs and other means to reduce noise when possible. “Once you have tinnitus, it’s much harder to reverse.”

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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Late MythBusters Star Grant Imahara Honored With New STEAM Foundation

Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Genevieve via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fans of MythBusters and White Rabbit Project host Grant Imahara were saddened to hear of his passing due to a brain aneurysm in July 2020 at the age of 49. Imahara, a graduate of the University of Southern California, used the television medium to share his love of science and engineering. Now, his passion for education will continue via an educational foundation developed in his name.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation was announced Thursday, October 23, 2020 by family and friends on what would have been Imahara’s 50th birthday. The Foundation will provide mentorships, grants, and scholarships that will allow students from diverse backgrounds access to STEAM education, which places an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. (Formerly referred to as STEM, the “A” for art was added more recently.)

Imahara had a history of aiding students. While working at Industrial Light and Magic in the early 2000s, he mentored the robotics team at Richmond High School to prepare for the international FIRST Robotics Competition. Whether he was working on television or behind-the-scenes on movies like the Star Wars prequels and The Matrix sequels, Imahara always found time to promote and encourage young engineering talent.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation’s founding board members include Imahara’s mother, Carolyn Imahara, and close friends Don Bies, Anna Bies, Edward Chin, Fon H. Davis, Coya Elliott, and Ioanna Stergiades.

“There are many students, like my son Grant, who need the balance of the technical and the creative, and this is what STEAM is all about,” Carolyn Imahara said in a statement. “I’m so proud of my son’s career, but I’m equally proud of the work he did mentoring students. He would be thrilled that we plan to continue this, plus much more, through The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation.”

Imahara friend Wade Bick is also launching an effort in concert with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering to name a study lounge after Imahara. Donations can be made here.

You can find out more about the foundation, and make a donation, on its website.