May 2021 Journal of Neuroscience

Age-related hearing loss is the most prevalent sensory impairment in the older adult population and is related to noise-induced damage or age-related deterioration of the peripheral auditory system. Hearing loss may affect the central auditory pathway in the brain, which is a continuation of the peripheral auditory system located in the ear. A debilitating symptom that frequently co-occurs with hearing loss is tinnitus. Strikingly, investigations into the impact of acquired hearing loss, with and without tinnitus, on the human central auditory pathway are sparse. 

This study used diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI) to investigate changes in the largest central auditory tract, the acoustic radiation, related to hearing loss and tinnitus. Participants with hearing loss, with and without tinnitus, and a control group were included. Both conventional diffusion tensor analysis and higher-order fixel-based analysis were applied. The fixel-based analysis was used as a novel framework providing insight into the axonal density and macrostructural morphologic changes of the acoustic radiation in hearing loss and tinnitus. 

The results show tinnitus-related atrophy of the left acoustic radiation near the medial geniculate body. This finding may reflect a decrease in myelination of the auditory pathway, instigated by more profound peripheral deafferentation or reflecting a preexisting marker of tinnitus vulnerability. Furthermore, age was negatively correlated with the axonal density in the bilateral acoustic radiation. This loss of fibre density with age may contribute to poorer speech understanding observed in older adults.

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