Tinnitus and Auditory Perception After a History of Noise Exposure: Relationship to Auditory Brainstem Response Measures

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Objectives:To determine whether auditory brainstem response (ABR) wave I amplitude is associated with measures of auditory perception in young people with normal distortion product otoacoustic emissions (DPOAEs) and varying levels of noise exposure history.Design:Tinnitus, loudness tolerance, and speech perception ability were measured in 31 young military Veterans and 43 non-Veterans (19 to 35 years of age) with normal pure-tone thresholds and DPOAEs. Speech perception was evaluated in quiet using Northwestern University Auditory Test (NU-6) word lists and in background noise using the words in noise (WIN) test. Loudness discomfort levels were measured using 1-, 3-, 4-, and 6-kHz pulsed pure tones. DPOAEs and ABRs were collected in each participant to assess outer hair cell and auditory nerve function.Results:The probability of reporting tinnitus in this sample increased by a factor of 2.0 per 0.1 µV decrease in ABR wave I amplitude (95% Bayesian confidence interval, 1.1 to 5.0) for males and by a factor of 2.2 (95% confidence interval, 1.0 to 6.4) for females after adjusting for sex and DPOAE levels. Similar results were obtained in an alternate model adjusted for pure-tone thresholds in addition to sex and DPOAE levels. No apparent relationship was found between wave I amplitude and either loudness tolerance or speech perception in quiet or noise.Conclusions:Reduced ABR wave I amplitude was associated with an increased risk of tinnitus, even after adjusting for DPOAEs and sex. In contrast, wave III and V amplitudes had little effect on tinnitus risk. This suggests that changes in peripheral input at the level of the inner hair cell or auditory nerve may lead to increases in central gain that give rise to the perception of tinnitus. Although the extent of synaptopathy in the study participants cannot be measured directly, these findings are consistent with the prediction that tinnitus may be a perceptual consequence of cochlear synaptopathy.

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