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How to train your brain to overcome tinnitus

Jan. 09, 2024.
4 min. read Interactions

Smartphone app + training course may offer a solution

About the Writer

Amara Angelica

135.07309 MPXR

Tinnitus experiencer (yep, I will be trying this)

Tinnitus sufferer (no, holding the ears doesn’t help) (credit: A. Angelica/DALL-E 3)

An international research team has developed an app that they say can reduce the debilitating impact of tinnitus in weeks, using a training course and sound therapy delivered via a smartphone app. 

The team from universities in Australia, New Zealand, France and Belgium report these findings today in the journal Frontiers in Audiology and Otology

The initial research trial worked with 30 sufferers. Almost two-thirds experienced a “clinically significant improvement.” The team is now planning larger trials in the UK, in collaboration with University College London Hospital. 

Introducing MindEar

“Tinnitus is common, affecting up to one in four people. It is mostly experienced by older adults but can appear for children,” said Dr Fabrice Bardy, an audiologist at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, lead author of the paper, and co-founder of MindEar, a company set up to commercialize the MindEar technology.

Millions looking for a solution

Tinnitus is not a disease in itself. It’s usually a symptom of another underlying health condition, such as damage to the auditory system or tension occurring in the head and neck.

For some, tinnitus goes away without intervention. For others, it can be debilitatingly life-changing, affecting hearing, mood, concentration, sleep and in severe cases, causing anxiety or depression, Bardy notes. “About 1.5 million people in Australia, 4 million in the UK, and 20 million in the USA have severe tinnitus.”

“One of the most common misconceptions about tinnitus is that there is nothing you can do about it; that you just have to live with it,” he says. “This is simply not true. Professional help from those with expertise in tinnitus support can reduce the fear and anxiety attached to the sound patients experience.” 

“Cognitive behavioral therapy is known to help people with tinnitus, but it requires a trained psychologist. That’s expensive, and often difficult to access,” says Professor Suzanne Purdy, Professor of Psychology at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland. 

“Even before we are born, our brains learn to filter out sounds that we determine to be irrelevant, such as the surprisingly loud sound of blood rushing past our ears, explains Purdy. As we grow, our brains further learn to filter out environmental noises such as a busy road, an air conditioner or sleeping partners.

“Unlike an alarm, tinnitus occurs when a person hears a sound in the head or ears, when there is no external sound source or risk presented in the environment and yet the mind responds with a similar alert response.

“The sound is perceived as an unpleasant, irritating, or intrusive noise that can’t be switched off. The brain focuses on it insistently, further training our mind to pay even more attention.

“Tinnitus is not a disease in itself. It’s usually a symptom of another underlying health condition, such as damage to the auditory system or tension occurring in the head and neck.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy + mindfulness + relaxation exercises + sound therapy

Enter MindEar. “MindEar uses a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and relaxation exercises as well as sound therapy to help you train your brain’s reaction so that we can tune out tinnitus. The sound you perceive fades in the background and is much less bothersome,” she says. 

An app, “MindEar,” is available free for iPhone or Android smartphone users.

“In our trial, two-thirds of users of our bot saw improvement after 16 weeks. This was shortened to only 8 weeks when patients additionally had access to an online psychologist,” says Bardy. 

“MindEar aims to help people to practice focus through a training program, equipping the mind and body to suppress stress hormones and responses, and thus reducing the brain’s focus on tinnitus.

“Although there is no known cure for tinnitus, there are management strategies and techniques that help many sufferers find relief. Based on the evidence from this trial, the MindEar team are optimistic that there is a more accessible, rapidly available and effective tool available for the many of those affected by tinnitus still awaiting support.”

MindEar is based on the research work of an international multi-disciplinary team composed of audiologists (Dr Laure Jacquemin, Dr Michael Maslin), psychologists (Prof Suzanne Purdy and Dr Cara Wong) and ENTs (Prof Hung Thai Van), led by Bardy, based at the University of Auckland.

Citation: Bardy, F., Jacquemin, L., Wong, C. L., Maslin, M. R., & Purdy, S. C. (2024). Delivery of internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy combined with human-delivered telepsychology in tinnitus sufferers through a chatbot-based mobile app. Frontiers in Audiology and Otology, 1, 1302215. https://doi.org/10.3389/fauot.2023.1302215 (open-access)

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