Evidence that hidden hearing loss underlies amplitude modulation encoding deficits in individuals with and without tinnitus
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Damage to auditory nerve fibers that expresses with suprathreshold sounds but is hidden from the audiogram has been proposed to underlie deficits in temporal coding ability observed among individuals with otherwise normal hearing, and to be present in individuals experiencing chronic tinnitus with clinically normal audiograms. We tested whether these individuals may have hidden synaptic losses on auditory nerve fibers with low spontaneous rates of firing (low-SR fibers) that are important for coding suprathreshold sounds in noise while high-SR fibers determining threshold responses in quiet remain relatively unaffected. Tinnitus and control subjects were required to detect the presence of amplitude modulation (AM) in a 5 kHz, suprathreshold tone (a frequency in the tinnitus frequency region of the tinnitus subjects, whose audiometric thresholds were normal to 12 kHz). The AM tone was embedded within background noise intended to degrade the contribution of high-SR fibers, such that AM coding was preferentially reliant on low-SR fibers. We also recorded by electroencephalography the "envelope following response" (EFR, generated in the auditory midbrain) to a 5 kHz, 85 Hz AM tone presented in the same background noise, and also in quiet (both low-SR and high-SR fibers contributing to AM coding in the latter condition). Control subjects with EFRs that were comparatively resistant to the addition of background noise had better AM detection thresholds than controls whose EFRs were more affected by noise. Simulated auditory nerve responses to our stimulus conditions using a well-established peripheral model suggested that low-SR fibers were better preserved in the former cases. Tinnitus subjects had worse AM detection thresholds and reduced EFRs overall compared to controls. Simulated auditory nerve responses found that in addition to severe low-SR fiber loss, a degree of high-SR fiber loss that would not be expected to affect audiometric thresholds was needed to explain the results in tinnitus subjects. The results indicate that hidden hearing loss could be sufficient to account for impaired temporal coding in individuals with normal audiograms as well as for cases of tinnitus without audiometric hearing loss.
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