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Tinnitus is a frequent, debilitating hearing disorder associated with severe emotional and psychological suffering. Although a link between stress and tinnitus has been widely recognized, the empirical evidence is scant. Our aims were to test for dysregulation of the stress-related hypothalamus-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis in tinnitus and to examine ear sensitivity variations with cortisol manipulation.
Twenty-one tinnitus participants and 21 controls comparable in age, education, and overall health status but without tinnitus underwent basal cortisol assessments on three non-consecutive days and took 0.5 mg of dexamethasone (DEX) at 23:00 on the first day. Cortisol levels were measured hourly the next morning. Detection and discomfort hearing thresholds were measured before and after dexamethasone suppression test.
Both groups displayed similar basal cortisol levels, but tinnitus participants showed stronger and longer-lasting cortisol suppression after DEX administration. Suppression was unrelated to hearing loss. Discomfort threshold was lower after cortisol suppression in tinnitus ears.
Our findings suggest heightened glucocorticoid sensitivity in tinnitus in terms of an abnormally strong glucocorticoid receptor (GR)-mediated HPA-axis feedback (despite a normal mineralocorticoid receptor (MR)-mediated tone) and lower tolerance for sound loudness with suppressed cortisol levels. Long-term stress exposure and its deleterious effects therefore constitute an important predisposing factor for, or a significant pathological consequence of, this debilitating hearing disorder.