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On September 17th, 1998 the Ithaca Journal ran its first "Ask A Scientist!" article in which Professor Neil Ashcroft , who was then the director of CCMR, answered the question "What is Jupiter made of?" Since then, we have received over 1,000 questions from students and adults from all over the world. Select questions are answered weekly and published in the Ithaca Journal and on our web site. "Ask A Scientist!" reaches more than 21,000 Central New York residents through the Ithaca Journal and countless others around the world throught the "Ask a Scientist!" web site.

Across disciplines and across the state, from Nobel Prize winning scientist David Lee to notable science education advocate Bill Nye, researchers and scientists have been called on to respond to these questions. For more than seven years, kids - and a few adults - have been submitting their queries to find out the answer to life's everyday questions.

Previous Week's Question Published: 25 November, 2004 Next Week's Question
Over-stimulation to inner ear causes tinnitus, or "ringing"
Why do your ears ring?

"Ringing" in the ears is called tinnitus. It happens when delicate cells inside your ear that send sound messages to your brain are injured or over-stimulated. These cells have projections on them that look like hairs, and they are called "hair cells". The perception of sound starts when pressure waves moving through the air reach your ears. This causes your eardrums to vibrate, and these movements are transferred to the fluid in the inner ear, where the hair cells are located.

Movement of the inner ear's fluid leads to bending of the tiny hairs on the hair cells. This bending excites the hair cells, and causes them to send electrical signals to your brain through a nerve called the "auditory nerve". Your brain interprets the electrical signals from the auditory nerve as sound. The ringing sound of tinnitus is often a high squeal, like the sound of a computer monitor, but it can also be a low roar, and it can affect one or both ears. Usually your ears ring for a brief time after youve been exposed to loud noise, but for about 44 million Americans, ringing in the ears is a constant and annoying problem. It most often happens because people expose themselves to damaging levels of sound over long periods of time and dont protect their ears. You can tell a sound is too loud for safety if you have to shout to make yourself heard over it. Other causes of tinnitus can be an ear canal plugged with ear wax, abnormal blood pressure, allergies, ear infections, medications, and even specific kinds of food! If you have persistent tinnitus, you should tell your doctor about it.