In a study published online January 19 by JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, researchers found that a cognitive training program improved the tinnitus perception, memory, attention, and concentration of patients with tinnitus.
Individuals with tinnitus have poorer working memory, slower processing speeds and reaction times and deficiencies in selective attention. Neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections—has been the foundation for the creation of several cognitive enhancement programs intended to slow normal aging and potentially improve disorders such as attention deficits. Brain Fitness Program-Tinnitus (BFP-T) is a cognitive training program specially designed to exploit neuroplasticity for preservation and expansion of cognitive health in adults with tinnitus.
Jay F. Piccirillo, MD, of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and editor of JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery and colleagues randomly assigned 40 adults with bothersome tinnitus for more than 6 months and 20 age-matched healthy controls to a BFP-T or non-BFP-T control group. Participants in the intervention group were required to complete the BFP-T online 1 hour per day, 5 days per week for 8 weeks. The BFP-T contains 11 interactive training exercises (simple acoustic stimuli, continuous speech, and visual stimuli) in an attempt to address the attentional effect of tinnitus.
Tinnitus assessment, neuroimaging, and cognitive testing were completed at baseline and 8 weeks later. The controls underwent neuroimaging and cognitive assessments.
The researchers found that patients with tinnitus in the BFP-T group had improvements in tinnitus perception, memory, attention, and concentration compared with patients in the non-BFP-T control group. Neuroimaging changes in brain systems responsible for attention and cognitive control were observed in patients who used the BFP-T. “A possible mechanistic explanation for these changes could be neuroplastic changes in key brain systems involved in cognitive control,” the authors write.
No changes in behavioral measures were observed between the two tinnitus study groups.
“We believe that continued research into the role of cognitive training rehabilitation programs is supported by the findings of this study, and the role of neuroplasticity seems to hold a prominent place in the future treatments for tinnitus,” the researchers write. “On the basis of our broad recruitment and enrollment strategies, we believe the results of this study are applicable to most patients with tinnitus who seek medical attention.”
According to a press release from Posit Science, the developers of the BFP-T BrainHQ exercises, 50% of the intervention group reported they experienced improvement (with 30% reporting they were much or very much improved), as compared to only 15% in the control group who reported improvement (all of which was reported as minimal improvement). Researchers noted that the qualitative assessment mainly reported improvements in tinnitus, memory, attention and concentration.
The MRI neuro-imaging showed significant between group differences, with the intervention group showing strengthening in areas associated with control and attention. The researchers found this to be consistent with the hypothesis that the plasticity-based exercises drive structural changes in the brain associated with better outcomes.
“These are encouraging results in addressing a common condition that can have effects ranging from the bothersome to the severely debilitating and life-altering,” Posit Science CEO Henry Mahncke. “These results further earlier work using our exercises and assessments in this area. We plan to seek additional support for further research, which may someday allow us to bring to market a targeted program for people with tinnitus.”
BrainHQ was developed by neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who serves as Posit Science’s chief scientific officer, and is well known in the field of cognitive science.