Subjective, chronic tinnitus, the perception of sound in the absence of an external source, commonly occurs with many comorbidities, making it a difficult condition to study. Hearing loss, often believed to be the driver for tinnitus, is perhaps one of the most significant comorbidities. In the present study, white matter correlates of tinnitus and hearing loss were examined. Diffusion imaging data were collected from 96 participants—43 with tinnitus and hearing loss (TINHL), 17 with tinnitus and normal hearing thresholds (TINNH), 17 controls with hearing loss (CONHL) and 19 controls with normal hearing (CONNH). Fractional anisotropy (FA), mean diffusivity and probabilistic tractography analyses were conducted on the diffusion imaging data. Analyses revealed differences in FA and structural connectivity specific to tinnitus, hearing loss, and both conditions when comorbid, suggesting the existence of tinnitus-specific neural networks. These findings also suggest that age plays an important role in neural plasticity, and thus may account for some of the variability of results in the literature. However, this effect is not seen in tractography results, where a sensitivity analysis revealed that age did not impact measures of network integration or segregation. Based on these results and previously reported findings, we propose an updated model of tinnitus, wherein the internal capsule and corpus callosum play important roles in the evaluation of, and neural plasticity in response to tinnitus.
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