March 14, 2006 -- Chronic tinnitus may make it harder to master new tasks, but practice could help overcome that hurdle, researchers report.
People with tinnitus hear ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, or other sounds without any known cause. Tinnitus can be fleeting or constant and vary in loudness.
About 50 million U.S. adults have tinnitustinnitus. For most, the condition is merely annoying, but some cases are severe, disrupting life and causing psychological distress.
The new study appears in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. The researchers included Susan Rossiter, a former research master's student at Australia's MARCS Auditory Laboratories and University of Western Sydney.
The study included 19 adults with chronic, moderate tinnitus in one or both ears and 19 without tinnitus. Rossiter's team matched the two groups for age, education level, and reading skills.
Participants took simple and complicated tests of working memory and visual attention. Both groups performed similarly on the easy tests. But on the complex tests, the tinnitus group scored lower.
In the memory test, participants heard several sentences and had to recall the last word from each sentence. The tinnitus group recalled fewer of those words than the comparison group.
The tinnitus patients also scored lower on the complicated attention test. In that test, they were timed as they read a word on a computer screen, classified the word, and clicked the computer's mouse. For instance, if the word on the screen was "wine," they were to classify it as "cooking" while clicking the computer's mouse.
Anxiety didn't seem to be responsible, according to anxiety surveys taken by participants.
Repetition generally helps people learn new skills that may feel awkward at first, such as knitting or typing, note Rossiter and colleagues.
Practicing and rehearsing new or difficult tasks might help people with tinnitus master those tasks, the researchers suggest. They note that their results might not apply to everyone with tinnitus and that future studies should also screen for depression, which may accompany tinnitus and hamper learning.