Maladaptive plasticity in tinnitus--triggers, mechanisms and treatment

Nat Rev Neurol. 2016 Mar;12(3):150-60. doi: 10.1038/nrneurol.2016.12. Epub 2016 Feb 12.


Tinnitus is a phantom auditory sensation that reduces quality of life for millions of people worldwide, and for which there is no medical cure. Most cases of tinnitus are associated with hearing loss caused by ageing or noise exposure. Exposure to loud recreational sound is common among the young, and this group are at increasing risk of developing tinnitus. Head or neck injuries can also trigger the development of tinnitus, as altered somatosensory input can affect auditory pathways and lead to tinnitus or modulate its intensity. Emotional and attentional state could be involved in the development and maintenance of tinnitus via top-down mechanisms. Thus, military personnel in combat are particularly at risk owing to combined risk factors (hearing loss, somatosensory system disturbances and emotional stress). Animal model studies have identified tinnitus-associated neural changes that commence at the cochlear nucleus and extend to the auditory cortex and other brain regions. Maladaptive neural plasticity seems to underlie these changes: it results in increased spontaneous firing rates and synchrony among neurons in central auditory structures, possibly generating the phantom percept. This Review highlights the links between animal and human studies, and discusses several therapeutic approaches that have been developed to target the neuroplastic changes underlying tinnitus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Auditory Cortex / pathology
  • Auditory Cortex / physiopathology
  • Auditory Pathways / pathology
  • Auditory Pathways / physiopathology*
  • Cochlear Nucleus / pathology
  • Cochlear Nucleus / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Noise / adverse effects
  • Tinnitus / diagnosis*
  • Tinnitus / physiopathology*
  • Tinnitus / therapy
  • Treatment Outcome