This Simple Psychology Treatment Could Fix Tinnitus In Some People

Our brains have the ability to adjust the attention they give to sounds the moment that information reaches the brainstem.

Young woman have headache migraine stress or tinnitus - noise whistling in her ears. A woman suffers...
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If you have a persistent ring in your ear — perhaps one that no one else hears — you might have tinnitus, a condition affecting over 25 million Americans, both adults and children, in some form or another. While tinnitus can be an underlying symptom of conditions like age-related hearing loss, an ear injury, or blood vessel issues, in many cases, it has no clear cause.

The effects of tinnitus can be debilitating, such as issues with mood and poor sleep. Treating the condition is incredibly difficult, although possible with cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT), which gives individuals a means to manage their distress. Unfortunately, CBT can be expensive and inaccessible, depending on where you live. To make CBT accessible yet effective, one group of researchers is training the brain to tune out the phantom sounds through a simple smartphone app.

The app, called MindEar, uses an AI-powered chatbot (designed to engage in CBT) to guide a user along mindfulness exercises and other approaches like sound therapy. In a clinical trial of 28 participants, two-thirds reported an improvement in their tinnitus distress within a few weeks.

Results from this clinical trial were published this week in the journal Frontiers in Audiology and Otology.

The science behind the app is simple: Our brains have the ability to adjust the attention they give to sounds the moment that information reaches the brainstem. Considering how dense our sound environment is — from the blood pumping past our ears to the hustle and bustle of traffic — it’s important for our brains to learn to ignore these relatively unimportant sounds otherwise, we’re always constantly reacting to them.

But tinnitus sounds are intrusive and much harder for folks to ignore and not react to. This is where CBT comes in. Individuals are taught to re-evaluate their internal dialogue when a tinnitus sound pops up, shifting their stressful response into a neutral one.

In the new study, the 28 participants with tinnitus who were, on average, 57 years old, were split evenly into two groups. One used the MindEar app for 10 minutes a day for eight weeks, and the others the same but included four half-hour video calls with a clinical psychologist. The participants completed questionnaires before and after the study period.

“In our trial, two-thirds of users of our chatbot saw improvement after 16 weeks. This was shortened to only 8 weeks when patients additionally had access to an online psychologist,” Fabrice Bardy, the study’s first author and an audiologist at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, who co-founded MindEar, said in a press release.

MindEar isn’t the only app offering relief to those with tinnitus. Another called Oto is undergoing a large clinical trial in the UK with clinical start-up Lindus Health. MindEar itself is subject to another large clinical trial in the UK in partnership with the University College London Hospital.

With more research underway, there’s hope these apps can change the lives of those struggling with the debilitating effects of 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,” said Bardy. “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.”

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