Tinnitus may interfere with tough mental tasks
By Karla Gale
Editor: Here's more evidence that tinnitus may interfere with the
performance of demanding mental tasks.
People who suffer from chronic, moderate tinnitus, or ringing in the
ears, may have more trouble performing demanding cognitive tasks than
individuals without tinnitus, Australian investigators report. "Our
results are good news in that there is no difference between groups on
everyday, familiar tasks," co-investigator Dr. Catherine Stevens
told Reuters Health.
"The differences observed in this controlled experimental
setting would not affect people with tinnitus in their daily
In fact, "it may not be the tinnitus per se that is related to
distress but negative reactions and negative thoughts associated with
tinnitus," she added.
To further understand the effects of tinnitus, Stevens and colleagues
at the University of Western Sydney in South Penrith, New South Wales,
recruited 19 patients with chronic tinnitus and 19 controls matched
according to age, education, occupation, and verbal IQ. They report
their findings in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research.
Subjects first underwent a Reading Span Test, in which 100 sentences
were read in five sets of two sentences up to five sets of six
sentences. Respondents were asked to recall the final words of all
sentences in the set in the correct order. The reading span was
calculated as the number recalled correctly on three out of the five
The mean reading span of the tinnitus group was 3.00, compared with
3.61 for the control group. It thus appears that "some individuals
with tinnitus have difficulties concentrating on the task and/or reduced
capacity to store and retrieve information from working memory,"
Stevens' group suggests.
The second experiment involved a dual task divided-attention test
involving visual stimuli. Subjects were to click a mouse button when a
small rectangle appeared on a computer screen. In addition, a word
appeared every 1.5 seconds, and subjects were to name the word. They
then were asked to name the subordinate category (cooking, animal, or
seascape) to which the word belonged.
The groups were similar in the reaction time and in the word-naming
task, but subjects with tinnitus scored more poorly in the
"The only difference in the performance of the two groups was on
the most demanding conditions of two laboratory tasks. These conditions
were unfamiliar and challenging," Stevens noted.
She added that there are a number of factors that might be
responsible for their findings. "One possibility is that there is a
loss of sleep among people with chronic tinnitus and that the difference
in performance is not the result of tinnitus directly but rather sleep
Other variables that are sometimes associated with tinnitus are
anxiety, depression, and hearing loss, which can impact cognition.
"A final explanation may lie in the nature of the task,"
she continued. "There was no difference on familiar, over-learned
conditions but a slight difference on novel tasks that required
controlled, strategic processing. One hypothesis that we will test in
the future is whether tinnitus absorbs attention, leaving fewer
cognitive resources available for novel tasks that require conscious
Stevens commented that "practical strategies that are effective
in managing tinnitus include getting involved in an absorbing activity
such as work or a hobby, and making time to relax by listening to music
or watching a movie. Cognitive-behavior therapy may assist people in
developing new ways to think about their tinnitus and this appears
effective in reducing distress and worry."